Does your toddler refuse to eat anything except chicken nuggets or mac-and-cheese? Does your preschooler rarely eat a green vegetable or fruit that is not in gummy form? Kids who are picky eaters are quite common, and most usually outgrow their narrow food preferences as they get older, but parents still worry if their picky eater is getting enough nutrition.
Parents can rest assured that, more than likely, their kids are getting enough nutrition for their growing bodies over the course of a week. Until your child outgrows this picky eating stage and his/her food tastes mature, there are some things you can do to help to make sure your picky eater gets a balanced diet.
1. Respect your child’s appetite or lack of appetite.
If your child says he isn’t hungry, never force him to eat. Using bribes or forcing your child to eat certain foods will only backfire and turn into a power struggle. Your child might begin to associate mealtime with stress and anxiety, which could lead to disordered eating later on.
2. Establish meal and snacktime routines. Stick to the same schedule for meals and snacks every day. If your child refuses to eat breakfast, then a regular snack mid-morning will offer him/her a time to eat nutritious food.
3. Limit juice and milk to mealtimes. Only allow juice or milk at meals, and offer only water between meals and snacks. If kids fill up on juice or milk throughout the day, it can decrease their appetites at mealtimes.
4. You’re not a short-order cook. Offer your picky eater what everyone else in the family is eating at mealtime. Don’t make a special meal of whatever food your child will eat as this just encourages the picky eating. Establish the rule that your child stays at the table until your whole family is finished eating, even if he or she doesn’t eat what is served.
5. Make eating fun. Serve carrots or broccoli with a favorite dip or sauce, and let your child do the dipping no matter how messy. Cut fruits and veggies into fun shapes like stars, hearts, or dinosaurs using cookie cutters. Mix it up and offer breakfast foods like eggs and bacon for dinner. Always try to serve a variety of different-colored foods, so your child’s plate looks colorful and inviting.
6. Involve your child. Let your child help with food shopping and meal preparation. Encourage your child to help pick out fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods at the grocery store. At home, ask him/her to help put away groceries and wash produce. Let him/her stir and add in ingredients while you’re preparing some recipes. Have your child set the table. Your child will feel a sense of pride in his/her accomplishments in helping with mealtime and may be more likely to try new foods when engaged in these types of tasks.
7. Be consistent. Often, a child needs to try something 10 to 15 times before he or she likes it. It can seem daunting, but once you get your child used to tasting new foods, it takes an average of six tries for him/her to accept a new food. You could also offer new foods for your child to try during snacks instead of at mealtimes, so it’s less disruptive for the rest of the family.
8. Get creative. Hide veggies and fruits in foods your child will typically eat. For example, add chopped broccoli to spaghetti sauce; add spinach to smoothies; add blueberries to his/her favorite cereal, or mix in finely grated zucchini or carrots into soups and casseroles.
9. Limit distractions. Keep the focus on food by turning off the TV and electronic gadgets during mealtime and snacks.
10. Don’t use dessert as a reward. Using dessert as a bribe for eating the healthy foods sends kids the message that dessert is the best food, which may only increase your child’s desire for eating only sweets. Limit desserts to one or two nights a week. Or occasionally substitute sweet desserts like cakes and cookies for fresh fruit or yogurt.