By Katie Mulligan
I talk to a lot of parents on a daily basis, and the No. 1 comment I hear is, “My child is such a picky eater!” Parenthood begins with the best of intentions: “I will never make two dinners in one night,” “My children will be served a vegetable at every dinner,” “I will never quiet my kids with food.” Sound familiar? Then, of course, real life sets in, and the first dinner you made hardly got eaten, the green beans ended up in the dog’s mouth instead of your child’s, and your four-year-old has decided he’s full after two bites of chicken but can’t wait for brownies! Picky eating, food jags (when a child gets stuck on one food and wants nothing else), and being hungry for one food but not another are all common complaints when raising young children. It is time for parents everywhere to take back control over dinnertime. Do it now–before you break another vow and start relying on boxed macaroni and cheese every night of the week!
Picky eating can exist for a variety of reasons — genetics, lack of parental modeling, limited exposure to new foods, food allergies and intolerances, and catering to a child’s whims. If you are coping with a picky eater or want to avoid having to cope with one, I hope that some of the following tips will strike a cord and give you some insight.
– You eat it too! Parental modeling is the No. 1 recommendation for encouraging your child to be adventurous in his eating habits. If your child doesn’t see you eating the food, he won’t eat it either. Just like you role-model “Please” and “Thank-you,” you need to role-model “Eat your broccoli,” too.
– Be considerate, not catering. When planning dinner, do not cater to your child’s every like and dislike. Instead, serve readily accepted foods with new foods. If you have a difficult child, don’t not make a new vegetable just for him. Make the dish, but put it in a bowl in the middle of the table — family style, instead of on his plate. It’s there, he can see it, but it is not threatening to him.
– Try, try again. Exposure is everything when feeding a picky eater. Some children need to be exposed at least ten times to a particular food before they are willing to try it.
– Do not force. Think about the last time you were forced to eat something. How did you like it? Were you anxious to eat it again? Do not force your child to eat a new food — new things can be very scary to children. Just put it on his plate and let it be.
– Make one dinner and one dinner only. Making multiple dinners teaches your child that she can say no and get what she wants anyway. It is natural to feel the need to fill our child with food — feeding is love. But you will be doing your child a greater favor by sticking to your guns and sticking to one meal. This is also where No. 2 (Be considerate, not catering) comes in handy. If you are being considerate, there is at least one food on the table, plus milk, that your child can fill up on. Rest assured: he won’t go hungry.
– Have your child help you choose and prepare the new food. Want to introduce your child to salad? Enlist his help in washing and tearing the lettuce, rinsing the cherry tomatoes, scattering the grated carrots, peeling the hard-cooked eggs, etc.
Katie Mulligan is a registered dietitian specializing in pediatrics. Through her practice, Nurturing Nutrition, Katie provides individualized nutrition counseling to children (ages birth to 18) and their families.