By: Ann Condon-Meyers, RD, LDN, Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC
It’s not unusual for parents to ask us in the Nutrition Clinic at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC for help with their picky eaters. While not recognized by insurance companies as a diagnosis, “food selectivity” is a real and present problem in many families. The picky eater can disrupt the family meal and turn peaceful, positive, family time into an unhappy battle of wills. Family meal times are an important part of child development and family dynamics. When meals become a negative experience for both picky eaters and parents, everyone loses. However, you really can have both happy eating and healthy eating all at the same time. In fact, you can’t have one without the other.
Looking for advice about dealing with your child, the picky eater? First and foremost, relax! Sound familiar? This is the typical response of many doctors to worried parents. But you say, “Our meals have become battle grounds over food choices” or “If I don’t give in and allow the same unhealthy foods every day, my child will simply refuse to eat!” To these laments, we answer: “You do have a difficult parenting problem, but it can be solved.” That’s right; I said a “parenting problem” and not a “nutrition problem.” Of course, no one wants to hear that mantra about parenting because we usually translate “parenting problem” into “I must be doing something wrong.”
Just know that you are a good parent, because you are concerned about your child’s nutrition, but you need a new strategy to deal with picky eating. First, let’s describe the problem. Most of the picky eating that exists is usually present in families with the following story:
- At least one of the parents is also a selective eater – This means you, if you were a picky eater as a child and now you don’t like a variety of foods, or you avoid foods with the same characteristics. An example of this is, you don’t like many vegetables or you don’t eat fish, or never drink milk or you would never, ever eat an unfamiliar food. Sound familiar?
- Your child ate everything as an infant – Once toddlerhood arrived, your child became adamant about only eating a few foods.
- New foods make your child upset – Especially if someone insists he or she eat at least one bite.
- You are fixing at least two entrees for dinner – Your picky eater wants the same few foods over and over again and will refuse to eat anything besides his or her favorites.
- Mealtimes are unhappy affairs – At least one parent is insisting that the child try all foods served, thus making the child unhappy and nervous during meals.
If this describes your family mealtimes, read on …
New strategies for parenting your picky eater are based on the concept that picky eating is a real fear of new foods. Imagine that I am asking you to eat a chocolate covered fried spider! Close your eyes and try to imagine putting that spider into your mouth and biting down on the sweet, salty and crunchy spider, legs and all! Do you feel anxious, grossed out, or nauseous? All of the above? Me too! And that’s how a picky eater feels when asked to try a new food. Even though you know that the food is healthy and tastes good, your child is too anxious, frightened, or grossed out to taste the food. How do you help your child become more relaxed around food so that he or she feels curious and empowered to try the new food?
Try the following strategies:
- Be relaxed and positive about your own food at mealtime. Just place foods on the table, put some on your plate, say a prayer if that’s your routine, and start eating. It’s OK to make comments such as “These roasted beets taste sweet,” but don’t tell your child, “You would really like this food.” You will never be able to taste food for your child so you can’t tell him or her that it will taste good. Different foods taste different to everyone.
- Allow children to serve themselves. Whatever is on the table is fair game for your child to pick from. Allow your kids to control their portion sizes and what they pick.
- Don’t make a separate entrée for any family member. This only reinforces their fear of new foods.
- As picky eaters are learning to eat, serve one of their favorite foods every meal, but it does not have to be the entrée. In fact, it can simply be a milk beverage and a favorite fruit. Given a variety of foods, studies have shown that children will pick a relatively balanced diet over a period of days if they are always offered healthy food choices.
- Encourage your child to help you prepare meals. Even a 3-year-old can help set the table, press the button on the microwave, or tear up lettuce for a salad.
- Give your child control over the selection of his or her foods. If your child seems anxious, especially around foods that are combination foods such as casseroles or soups, ask for his or her help in preparing these foods and try to leave one of the ingredients separate on the table. For example, if you fix a casserole, leave the bread topping or shredded cheese separate and allow your child to sprinkle it over his or her portion. Or if it is chicken noodle soup, serve some of the cooked carrots and broccoli on the side so your child can add these to the noodles. Serve meatballs separate from the pasta dish so your child can add them to his or her spaghetti — choose to keep it separate. Foods such as tacos and sandwiches can be made at the table, which allows the child to choose which foods he or she will incorporate into the entree. Allow your child to use sauces as “dipping sauces” so they can control how much of the sauce he or she eats.
- Respect your child’s appetite. If your child simply refuses to eat, allow him or her to leave the table after a few minutes. Let the child know when the next meal or snack is planned. When he or she returns to you later and asks for something to eat, as long as it is the pre-stated time for a meal or snack, put out the same food as a snack and serve a milk beverage with it. This is hard to do at first, but the more consistent you are, the sooner your child will learn to manage his or her appetite, eat more at mealtime, and stop grazing and begging for food.
- Try using one of your child’s favorite foods to introduce another food. This technique is called “food chaining.” For example, if you child likes corn, mix chopped tomatoes with corn. Another way to link new foods to old foods is to change the texture, but not the food. For example, if your child likes raw carrots and broccoli with Ranch dressing, cook the same vegetables and serve Ranch dressing as a sauce on the side. If your child likes the apple cinnamon oatmeal packets, try making quick-cook oats (also made in the microwave), put toppings such as applesauce, cinnamon and raisins on the table, and allow your child to choose his or her “topping.”
In conclusion, keep in mind that your job is to expose your child to all of the wonderful, healthy foods available at your house. It is not your job to tell your child how much of a food he or she should eat. Let your child continue to use his or her appetite. Don’t give rewards for good eating or punishment for not eating well. Nagging, bribing, or punishment will only override your child’s appetite and will teach him or her that eating is a chore to be performed to please others.
If you would like to read more about this topic, check out the book, Fearless Feeding; How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School, by Jill Castle, MS, RD, LDN, and Maryann Jacobsen, MS, RD. As the title implies, removing the fear of foods and allowing your child to eat a variety of foods is your goal. A relaxed attitude around food will always be better for everyone both from a nutrition and development standpoint. Happy eating can also be healthy eating. Who knows? Your picky eater will someday eat a wide variety of foods and may even grow up to be a wonderful cook – I know mine did!
Feel free to try the following recipe adapted from the Fearless Feeding book:
Asian Turkey Sliders
Try making these easy “burgers” and serving equal parts of sesame oil and peanut butter (microwave together for 30 seconds then stir) on the side for a “dipping sauce.” Allow your child to choose a bun and put the “burger” on the bun or eat burger and bun separate.
1 lb ground turkey or extra lean ground beef
¼ cup Panko bread crumbs
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tsp ginger powder or 1 tablespoon ginger paste
2 tablespoon sesame oil (usually found in the Asian aisle of your grocery store)
2 scallions (green onions) white and green parts thinly sliced
12 small bakery rolls (“slider” buns or Hawaiian rolls) sliced in half
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F (can also be done on a grill)
2. Mix the ground turkey, panko, soy sauce, ginger, sesame oil and scallions together in a large mixing bowl.
3. Roll the mixture into 10 to 12 small balls and press each into a 2 inch circle.
4. Bake the sliders on a cookie sheet for 15 minutes or grill until done.
Pair the sliders with home-made sweet potato fries (frozen or make fresh) and a chopped salad — again remembering to keep the ingredients separate for your child. Let your child choose which items go into his or her salad. Instead of croutons, use Chinese noodles, also in the Asian section of the grocery store. Suggested items for an Asian salad include raisins, sliced almonds, carrots, green onions, celery, frozen peas (don’t cook), and broccoli. You can use the above dipping sauce stirred with a bit of soy sauce, dash of ginger and water (enough to thin the sauce) in order to make an Asian salad dressing.