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Got a Picky Eater in Your Family?

Ways to keep peace at the dinner table.

When stay-at-home mom April Thompson gets ready to feed her 2-year old toddler, Ari, she never knows what to expect. Sometimes her daughter will gobble up carrots, other times she turns them down cold. Today, bananas are a hands-down favorite. Tomorrow? Who knows. And when it comes to introducing a new food, say ham or pasta? Yeah, not so much.

“She doesn’t want to try anything,” says April. “If we try to give her something new, she thinks we’re looking to hurt her and backs into a corner.” Her husband, Richard, often works to convince Ari that a new food is yummy, yet that only makes their daughter more suspicious. “She thinks there must be something wrong with it,” April says with a laugh. “She doesn’t eat lunch at her daycare because she doesn’t want to try anything. But she’ll eat snacks or bread. I’m trying to tell my husband we should put our foot down, but I worry that if she doesn’t eat, she’ll go hungry.”

Midtown mom Carol Jennings understands their dilemma. Her 5-year-old son refuses to eat foods that aren’t white. That means mac and cheese can be snuck in but black beans or spinach? Definite no-nos. Carol often finds herself feeling frustrated at meal time.

“I’m sometimes at a loss as to what to prepare. I don’t know where he gets this from. My husband and I both love food.”

Eats this, not that

Do you have a finicky eater at your house? Getting a child to eat can be a major source of frustration for parents. You worry about them not getting enough nutrition, or worse, that this behavior will spiral into a battle of wills.  

So what’s a parent to do? Relax, say the experts.

“These are all normal childhood eating patterns,” claims clinical dietitian Allison Beck, from Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital. “Some kids love one food and not the next, and they’ll go through food jags, where they’ll want spaghetti every night and then not at all.”

Pickiness often surfaces during the toddler years, when children are beginning to assert their independence. Their appetite is more moderate than that of their babyhood, when the body is growing more rapidly, and they’ve begun to exercise their ability to make choices. Brenda Nixon, author of The Birth to Five Book, notes that well-intentioned parents often run themselves ragged trying to find the foods Junior will eat.

“The better way to handle this situation is to prepare and serve tiny portions frequently along with favorite foods. Just the familiarity of rejected food makes it less intimidating and more enticing to the toddler’s curiosity,” writes Nixon.

At this age, “Kids can get scared of new foods but the more you keep putting them on their plate, the more likely they’ll become curious and try it. Just keep reintroducing it,” Beck says. “Parents often give a new food one time and when the kid doesn’t eat it, the parent gives up too soon.” In fact, it can take 10 or more introductions of a food before your child will begin to accept a new item.

“Don’t focus on the amount of food your child eats, but include variety,” says Beck. “Serve chicken nuggets with a tablespoon of spinach and applesauce. She may not eat it initially and that’s okay. Don’t push it, but do keep reintroducing it.”

Beck says it’s also important not to cater to your child, or let them eat a lot between meals. Stay on a regular meal schedule, so your child will be hungry when he comes to the table. One small snack between meals should help stave off hunger pangs.

When kids get older

Kiffany Davidson-Brown’s daughter Bailee is 9 and is still a very particular eater. As a baby, Bailee was lactose intolerant, so Kiffany had to watch what she fed her daughter. Today, Bailee still has food aversions and takes her lunch to school because she only likes certain things.  

“I’m concerned about her getting the nourishment she needs. If she says she likes something, I’ll buy a lot of it. I’ll ask her to make a list of foods she wants me to get at the grocery.” Kiffany says she used to  angst over mealtime, but “I’ve backed off and now offer food and figure she’ll eat when she’s hungry.”

Some eating patterns get shaped when children are babies. New parents often don’t realize that by limiting the food choices you introduce to your child can set the stage for later pickiness.  

“If you have a kid who doesn’t eat well, then you can get into coaxing and putting pressure on the child. That tends to make the eating process less enjoyable and can leave the child with negative associations with some foods,” says Beck. Experts agree, it’s best to make mealtime pleasurable. That means no offering bribes for eating everything on the plate, or using dessert as reward. Furthermore, dispense with the guilt trips, as in “If you really loved your mama, you’d eat this casserole.” A child should not learn to substitute food for love, says the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

The good news? The majority of picky eaters are perfectly healthy and will develop normal appetites as they enter adolescence. Remember, as with many phases of childhood, this too shall pass. 

The Do’s and Don’ts of Mealtime

DON’T

• Don’t offer food as a bribe or reward for desirable behavior.

• Don’t make your child feel guilty about not liking        
    what is served.

• Don’t make meal time a battleground. Let your child
    eat until full, not until the plate is clean.

DO

• Do offer a wide variety of foods when your child is young. Six to 12 months of age is a good time to begin introducing a range of foods.

• Do recognize your baby or toddler’s body language. If he turns his head or refuses to open his mouth, it means he is full. Don’t make him continue to eat.

• Do introduce a new food multiple times. It can take nine to 12 appearances for a child to accept a new food. Be patient but persistent.     

• Do make mealtime a pleasant, relaxed experience.

• Do try new foods yourself and model healthy eating.

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