NUTRITION TIPS FROM THE DIETITIAN
I was so excited to introduce new foods to my first baby. I had done everything by the book during my pregnancy and while breast feeding. I just knew feeding my child was going to be easy. Turned out I was in for a rude awakening. How did I get a picky eater??? So, the journey of handling a picky eater in my own home began. I had read all the books and counselled numerous parents on this topic for years, but actually living through it taught me that patience and consistency are the most valuable tools. Fast forward 7 years and I’m happy to say my once picky eater will try just about anything! She doesn’t “love” everything, but that’s okay! She’s open to tasting, which is a total “WIN” in my book.
Parents tell me all the time their child used to eat anything as a baby, but as soon as the child turned 2 years old, he stopped eating vegetables. My almost 4-year-old son went through (er… is still going through) a picky eating phase that started when he was a toddler. This is such a critical time to continue offering new or previously rejected foods. The guidelines below are what I counsel in my clinical practice and what I apply every day in my own home. I’m now watching my son open up [slowly] to trying a wider variety of foods, just like my daughter did.
Picky Eater Guidelines
NOTE: These guidelines are for most generally healthy children. For children with specific needs (i.e., autism, food/texture aversions, failure to thrive/underweight, eating disorders, etc.), a more individualized plan is typically needed. Please seek individual counseling from your pediatrician or a registered dietitian.
MAKE MEAL TIMES POSITIVE.
This is absolutely the most important thing to establish first! Don’t move on to the next steps without this one. With crazy schedules, it can be difficult to get everyone together at dinnertime. Do your best to grab everyone who is at home in the evening, and sit together at the dinner table for about 20-30 minutes. Keep the communication positive and upbeat – talk about something funny that happened in each of your days, and don’t focus the entire conversation on food. Kids need to feel the dinner table is a place where positive interactions happen, not a place where they feel tension and frustration. Once a positive environment at the table is established, then you can move on to the next steps that actually involve food.
Note for toddlers and young children: Toddlers can sit in a booster or high chair, but need to be scooted up to the table rather than sitting by themselves. If a child throws a tantrum during dinner, calmly excuse him from the table and tell him he is invited back when he has a happy attitude. Those remaining at the table should continue positive talk with one another, even laugh loudly together to show they’re having fun. (If you’re the only person remaining at the table, you can pretend to be having a fun time by yourself. Sounds silly, but try it!) The child who was excused from the table will take notice and will most likely show interest in returning to the table. Invite him to come back to the table for some fun. Usually kids will take the bait. If not, don’t sweat it, just tell him, “Ok, we’ll try for a better day tomorrow.”
It is worth noting that it may take several tries across several days before your child responds. Keep at it.
INVOLVE KIDS WITH MEAL PREP.
Let kids pick out a new fruit or vegetable while in the grocery store. Include them in washing the fruits and vegetables at home. Let them help you prepare them. If kids take more ownership of the food, they are sometimes more likely to taste them.
OFFER, OFFER, OFFER.
Everyone’s dinner plate should have the same foods on it, and the main cook at dinner should prepare one meal only. You are not a short-order chef. It’s important to include vegetables on everyone’s plate every day, even if it’s a very small amount. This will get your child used to seeing them on his plate. If your child complains, show him that everyone’s plate looks the same. Encourage your child to try new foods (or previously rejected foods), but as stated in step 1, don’t make the focus of the conversation about food. Keep it positive by playing games with younger kids – “Let’s pretend like we’re dinosaurs and chomp these baby trees [broccoli].” Be consistent with this message: “You can’t say you don’t like it until you try it!” If he tries it, give him a high five and praise him for trying (even if he doesn’t like it). If he just digs in his heels and refuses to try, stay calm and say, “Okay, we’ll try it again some other time.” Do NOT force feed your child!!!! If he eats very little at dinner but complains about still being hungry, stick to your guns that you are not going to make him a different meal. This is going to sound harsh, but if he goes to bed hungry, that is his choice – he won’t starve. It’s a sad day when my kids go to bed hungry, but you know what… it rarely happens these days because they know if they don’t eat what is offered at dinner, then they don’t eat! Of course, make several attempts to encourage your child to eat, but don’t battle over it. Limit meal times to 30 minutes (unless he is truly still eating and making good progress). Be ready for tears and tantrums but do your best to remain positive and to maintain a low-pressure environment. In the crusade for introducing new foods, it’s not the “loudest” person that wins, it’s the “most-consistent!” Again, keep at it!
As a side note, try not to make an entire meal of foods that you know your child dislikes. Try to put at least one item on the plate that you know he likes. You can also have an easy back-up. As many times as my daughter has tried salad, she still does not like it. So, when I make a salad at dinner, I put at least a bite of salad on her plate plus several baby carrots, which she does love. It’s not like making an entirely different meal, just a quick alternative option from the same food group.
MAKE THE HOME A HEALTHY ENVIRONMENT.
Many parents have told me, “I buy lots of fruits and vegetables, but my child always goes for the junk food.” The best way to support your child in eating healthy is to not buy the junk food! If the junk is not there, he won’t eat it. If the only food choices at home are healthy, then he will eat them if he is truly hungry. Remember, skinny doesn’t equal healthy and is not a free ticket to load up on junk food and sugary drinks. The entire family needs to eat healthy together. It’s unrealistic to expect a child to say “no thanks” to the foods they find most tempting. Most kids just aren’t built to self-regulate that kind of thing so “buy-in” from the whole family is important.
There is nothing wrong with a slice of cake at a birthday party or a trip out for a small cup of ice cream from time to time. What you are working towards is changing the overall habit of eating unhealthy foods and oversized portions on a regular basis. We want more than just a healthy and well-eating child, we want a healthy and well-eating family!