Eat Beat

Picky, Picky!
Try these tips to broaden the diet of a fussy eater.

by Althea Zanecosky

As a dietitian and parent I have found that when it comes to food, almost every caregiver has encountered a finicky child.

My daughter has requested a peanut butter sandwich for her lunch every day for 15 years. Some parents have told me that trying to please their picky eater has made them feel like a short-order cook. Others worry that their child’s insistence on eating the same food for every meal is depriving him of important nutrients.

After obesity, picky eating is the second most prevalent childhood food problem. However, picky-eating behaviors are normal:

Children go on food “jags” where they seem to eat only one food.

Children need fewer calories than parents think. This means that they may be full, not finicky.

Children are separatists who typically like their foods individually, not combined or even “touching.”

Children are suspicious of new foods. While this doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t offer them something different to try, it does mean that expectations should be low and attitudes positive when they do.

Research has found that over the course of a week, most kids get plenty of variety and nutrition in their diets. So until your child’s food preferences mature, prevent mealtime battles one bite at a time. Here’s what works:

Chill. If your child senses that you’re upset with her eating habits, it can become a battle of wills. Threats and punishments only make it worse. Tune in to your child’s hunger or lack of it. Young children tend to eat only when they’re hungry. If your child isn’t hungry, don’t force.

Watch the clock. Don’t offer juice or snacks for at least one hour before meals. Eat on schedule. If your child comes to the table hungry, he is usually more motivated to eat.

Lower your expectations. After age 2, slower growth often reduces a child’s appetite. A few bites may be all it takes for her to feel full.

Start small. Offer several foods in small portions. Let your child choose what he eats. Stay away from the clean plate club. Don’t force your child to eat everything on her plate. This may only force a power struggle over food. Let her stop eating when she is full.

Be patient with new foods. Young children often touch or smell new foods, even putting some in their mouths and then taking it out. Most kids need repeated exposure to a new food before they take the first bite.

Recruit your child’s help. Take your child to the grocery store and ask him to help you select fruits, veggies, and other healthy foods. At home let him help rinse veggies, stir, or set the table.

Keep it separate. If your child isn’t a fan of various ingredients thrown together, serve “unmixed” food. Serve the ingredients of a salad, casserole, or stir-fry separately.

Get into a routine. Serve meals and snacks at about the same times every day. If the kitchen is closed at other times, your child may be more likely to eat what’s served for meals and snacks.

Minimize distractions. Turn off the television during meals, and don’t allow books or toys at the table. Everyone has likes and dislikes. As kids mature, they tend to become less picky. But don’t expect your child to like everything.

Know when to seek help. If your child is energetic and growing, she’s probably doing fine. Consult your child’s doctor if you’re concerned that pickiness may be affecting her growth or if certain foods seem to make her ill.

Set a good example. If you eat a variety of healthy foods, your child will most likely too.

Your child’s eating habits won’t change overnight. But the small steps you take each day can help towards a lifetime of healthy eating.

Althea Zanecosky is a Philadelphia registered dietitian and national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.