Some young children are like those little ferns that magically draw nutrition from the air. Others -- or as everyone calls them, picky eaters -- will refuse anything that isn’t white, brown and filled with carbs. Persnickety little ones may object to foods touching on the plate. Some, without even a taste, reject any food that’s new to them. Some picky eaters demand fast food, sodas, and are at risk for being overweight.
Family dinners with picky eaters can easily turn into power struggles. If any of this sounds familiar, you might feel that it isn’t easy eating green or at least it isn’t easy to get your little one to put anything green into his mouth.
Cause for worry?
Today’s well-educated parents know that good nutrition is important to their child’s health. They may have a good understanding about what to feed their child, but not how to get their little one to eat the right foods. They worry that their picky eater is not getting needed nutrients. Or they may worry about the epidemic of childhood obesity, with its complications of diabetes, heart disease and eating disorders.
Developing healthy attitudes about food begins in infancy. Even young babies can indicate when they’ve had enough to drink and eat. Parents should learn to recognize and respect these signals. If a parent knows how to encourage good eating behavior and how to respond to difficult behavior, they can get their child off to a healthy start and help prevent later picky eating problems.
But don’t despair if you have a toddler or even an older child who is a picky eater. Most of the childhood eating problems that worry parents gradually resolve with maturity. Most adults enjoy foods now that they recall hating as a child.
Child development stages
What can parents do to help their picky eating kids eat healthfully? First, understand your child’s developmental phase. It is common for toddlers to grow more slowly during the second year of life, resulting in a smaller appetite. They also are more mobile and may not stay seated long. They are more interested in exploring than eating. Perhaps the family dinnertime is too late for them. If they’re getting sleepy and cranky, they won’t eat well.
Young children are often hungriest in the morning and least hungry at dinner. If Dad only eats with his young child in the evening, he may worry that the child is in danger of wasting away. Also, children often want the same foods every day. Just as they want to hear the same nightly bedtime story, their love of routine may make them balk at trying new foods.
On the other hand, toddlers are interested in self-feeding. They often like interesting foods, especially food that is colorful or has fun shapes. They love to be in the kitchen, either helping to cook or playing with toy dishes and pots and pans while an adult is preparing food.
As children gain their verbal skills and have more experiences, they often begin to express strong preferences with food. They may insist that sandwiches are always cut in the same way, with the crusts removed. They may only accept milk if it is in the “blue” cup. They may demand favorite foods or those seen in TV advertisements, such as fast food. They begin to notice other children’s food picky eating habits and may imitate them. Often, they’re more interested in playing than eating.
On the positive side, preschoolers love to help with making food. They can help stir batters and put toppings on pizza and may enjoy choosing a new fruit or vegetable to try when grocery shopping with a parent. They love to dunk veggies or fruits into a healthful dip. Preschoolers also like to make choices between two alternatives, such as a slice of apple or a slice of pear.
Ellyn Satter, a well-known nutritionist and author, has a “golden rule” for feeding children. It is that a parent’s responsibility is to provide nutritious foods, regular mealtimes and snack times. The child’s responsibility is to decide how much to eat to satisfy hunger.
In other words, parents are in charge of deciding what foods to offer a child but not how much of the food the child needs to eat. Just as an adult’s appetite may vary from day to day, so does a child’s appetite. Young children naturally stop eating when they are full, even if they’re eating ice cream or other sweets. It’s important to reinforce this by allowing your child to determine when he has had enough. That is how a child learns to trust body signals for hunger and satiety.
If your child has special needs or is a persistently picky eater, seek help from a pediatrician or pediatric nutritionist. However, if your child is growing well and gradually eating a wider variety of healthy foods, you’re on the right track.
Dr. Woolley, a retired pediatrician, is co-author with Jennifer Woolley Pugmire of the book Food for Tots: The Complete Guide to Feeding Preschoolers, available at foodfortots.com.
The six R’s of feeding picky eaters
- It is your child’s responsibility to determine how much to eat to satisfy hunger.
- It is your responsibility to provide a variety of nutritious foods and to determine where and when to eat.
- Respect your child’s need to be cautious about trying new foods.
- Respect your child’s appetite.
- Resist power struggles over eating.
- Don’t allow meals to turn into a bite count.
- Reinforce good eating habits.
- Avoid frequent use of food for entertainment or reward.
- Allow occasional treats, but don’t give in to whining for junk food.
- Establish regular meal and snack times.
- Set a good example by eating a healthful variety of foods.
- Learn to recognize correct portion sizes for your child’s age.
- Track your child’s growth in height and weight.
- Seek help if your child has an unusually difficult problem with eating.
- If you provide healthful foods, reasonably structured times for meals and snacks, and a nurturing atmosphere, you can trust a healthy child to do the rest.