Pleasing Picky Eaters From Tots to Teens
You're not alone. Most young children are somewhat picky about food, says pediatric nutrition specialist Allison Lachowitz, a registered dietitian with Presbyterian Hemby Children's Hospital in Charlotte. But you don't have to turn into a short-order chef to please your picky child. Here are some age-by-age tips to help him expand his palate.
According to Linda Piette, author of Just Two More Bites! Helping Picky Eaters Say Yes to Food, the toddler and preschooler years are a prime time for picky eating habits to surface, since tots and young children are naturally inclined to test limits. In cases of extreme pickiness, she encourages parents to consider having a child evaluated for underlying causes like swallowing difficulties, digestion problems or food allergies, which can affect a child's willingness to eat.
For otherwise healthy children who simply prefer pasta to vegetables, Lachowitz tells parents to tone down the veggie pressure. "If a child skips vegetables at one meal or refuses to eat them for a few days, it's not the end of the world," she says.
Instead of forcing veggie-hating kids to choke down peas and carrots, encourage a variety of fresh fruits, which offer many of the same nutritional benefits as vegetables. Presentation matters, too. Arrange vegetables on the plate in a fun way and provide a rainbow of colors to ensure a balance of vitamins and antioxidants.
Note: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies be fed nothing but breast milk until 6 months.
During the chaotic, busy school years, parents of picky eaters may be tempted to head off battles by fixing each child a separate meal. But morphing into a short-order chef at mealtimes won't solve the problem and just creates more work (and, eventually, resentment) for parents.
Instead of falling into this trap, involve school-age children in shopping and meal planning. "When you work with a selective eater instead of against him, you will be more successful," Lachowitz says.
Include one to two items in each meal that everyone enjoys, then prepare the rest of the meal normally without making excessive accommodations for a picky eater.
Encourage your child to try the main course without forcing him to eat (nearly always a losing battle). And never use food as a reward. ("If you eat your salad, you can have some ice cream!") You don't want your child to view vegetables as a ticket to dessert, Lachowitz says.
Good health to go
For some, eating habits become more problematic during the tween and teenage years, as busy schedules, after-school jobs and socializing enable picky eaters to consume more meals away from parents' watchful eyes. This can create nutritional nightmares, like lunching on nothing but French fries and nacho cheese or, worse, skipping meals altogether.
Despite the challenge of an on-the-go schedule, don't throw in the towel when it comes to teen eating habits. Their growing bodies and developing brains still require hearty nutrition. Together with your teen, glance at the week's calendar and develop a game plan for quick meals. Teens can make a wrap, salad or sandwich in advance that can be tossed in a bag along with dried fruit, nuts and sparkling water.
Learning to make fast, healthy meals is a skill that will serve teens well in college and beyond. "Hopefully, they'll continue these good habits for a lifetime," Lachowitz says.
Malia Jacobson is a nationally published health and parenting journalist. Her latest book is Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.
Updated March 26, 2013