“I don’t like tomatoes!”, “I don’t like that stinky cheese!”, “Only white foods!”, “I don’t want chicken!”. Sound familiar? If you are a parent of a picky eater, you’ve probably tried just about everything to get your child to eat the right foods. Truth be told, all children at some point in these early years demonstrate some level of pickiness in their food selection. Fortunately, this is usually just a passing phase and it is often easier to roll with it, rather than creating a power struggle around the dinner table. − Andrea Hill, BASc, MSc, Holistic Nutrition Educator
So, why does fussy eating happen? Picky eating can simply be your child’s way of asserting independence; testing how far the limits of your authority can be pushed, and the degree of control over their own lives. A reluctance to try new foods can sometimes surface during times of great change – the start of a school year, perhaps, even a parent separation. In this instance, a child might seek ‘sameness’ in food as much as possible, including sticking to the same small groups of foods. This particular pattern creates security for them and may help the child feel safe.
What can you do as a parent? Most importantly, try not to get frustrated and pressure your child to eat. Although this is easier said than done, parents sometimes really need to take a step back and ‘let go’ of their end of the emotional-food-battle. Forcing your child to eat is never a good idea. Ever. Not only does this send the wrong message and attach negative connotations to specific foods, it further aggravates an already trying situation, and will frustrate both you and your child.
Here are some tips to help end the power struggle and make mealtimes easier for you and your picky eater.
Your child will be less willing to try new foods if you have not tasted it yourself, or shown disgust or disinterest in trying something new. Be aware of your facial expressions, body language and words, as these may seem harmless, but can influence your child’s food preferences and acceptance of trying new things.
Picky eater or no picky eater, parents are encouraged to continue offering a variety of healthy food choices at meal times. In other words, don’t give up! When offering a new food, put it next to a food your child already likes, bearing in mind that children need to be exposed to a new food 10-15 times before they may be willing to eat it. If all your child does is smell the new food at first, let it be, trying again another time. Keep your child’s texture preferences in mind when offering a new food. If your child does not like ‘mushy’ foods, you probably don’t want to cook the carrots or mash those potatoes. Instead, consider keeping the carrots raw (and serve a dip on the side, if you think that might appeal to them), or thinly slice the potatoes for homemade baked potato chips (a mandolin slicer can really come in handy here!).
Some children are much more willing to try a new food if they have taken part in the ‘creation’ of the meal. Have little ones assist you with measuring, pouring and stirring. Asking your child to choose the vegetable can also be a way of involving them in meal preparation. Give your child the option of choosing one of two things: “broccoli with cheese sauce or a rainbow salad?”. Never pose the question, “what vegetable do you want to eat for dinner tonight?” You know what they are going to say!
If your child is snacking all day, they will be uninterested in trying new foods at meal times, especially the ever-problematic vegetables! Try to stick to a consistent meal and snack schedule, and allow at least two hours between your child’s mid-afternoon or afterschool snack and dinner time. The idea here is that you want to get your child hungry and interested at the meal time when more nutritious foods are typically offered. Limit snacks to about two to three a day, and limit each snack to about 150 calories a piece. An example of this might be a piece of fruit and a small yoghurt cup, or 5-6 wholegrain crackers with a little spread of almond butter. Liquid calories also need to be accounted for; drinking juices, sodas, or any sugary drinks for that matter, will easily displace a healthy appetite and interest in trying new foods at meal times.
For the most part, healthy kids eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. As a parent, when you encourage your children to clean their plate, you are encouraging them to eat past the point of fullness, which can set them up for weight gain in their teenage years and later in adulthood. Studies suggest if you pile on a lot of food onto a child’s plate, they will eat it, regardless of natural satiety cues. To avoid this common blunder, do not encourage children to clean their plate or punish them if they do not clean their plate. Instead, provide them with smaller, more appropriate portions and allow them to eat the amount that feels right to them. If they finish eating and request more, you could certainly give them a second helping, just try not to overwhelm them with a plate load of food.
It can be downright frustrating to get a fussy eater to eat their vegetables. But, when you tell a child that you are going to give them an ice cream treat or a cookie prize if they eat their broccoli or finish their peas, you are basically validating what they already think: vegetables are unappealing and the dessert is the ultimate prize for making them eat something so ‘yucky’. Try to keep vegetables and dessert as two separate entities. In other words, no more ‘sweet rewards’ for eating vegetables (or even trying a new food). Encouraging your child to eat more vegetables means to never stop offering them. Put them on the table every single day and vary it up! Some parents have success with the ‘one bite’ rule, which can appease both parent and child, since it is ultimately the child’s decision to finish eating after taking that one single bite.
Sometimes the parent’s picky-eater-solution is to simply hide it into an existing family favourite. Shredded (peeled) zucchini and yellow squash are easily disguised in any type of casserole recipe, while finely chopped mushrooms magically ‘disappear’ in a skillet of minced beef for tacos, Bolognese and chili recipes. No child will ever detect that the potato mash for the cottage pie is actually cauliflower. Finally, tinned pumpkin is undetectable when stirred into tomato sauces (for pizza or pasta), and frozen (mashed) butternut squash is the perfect camouflage in a homemade white sauce for macaroni. The possibilities are endless. Be patient and keep trying!
Andrea Hill, BASc, MSc, is a Holistic Nutrition Educator and whole foods advocate based in Cayman. She specialises in the areas of weight management, hormonal balance and digestive wellness. She holds a Masters of Science Degree in Health & Nutrition from Hawthorn University. Visit www.andreahillnutrition.com.
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