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No More Mealtime Battles!

When my daughter Madeline was 3, she ranked food by color, and there were certain hues, such as green, that she never touched. Her favorite was the white food group because it included vanilla ice cream, marshmallows, whipped cream, and white bread spread thickly with butter. Her finicky eating habits were frustrating -- and perfectly normal.

"Nearly forty percent of children age five and under are picky eaters -- meaning that there's little variety in their diet and it may seem like they eat only bananas for a month," says John Tedeschi, M.D., chair of the department of pediatrics at the Virtua West Jersey Health Systems, in Voorhees, New Jersey. "But this is a developmental stage they'll grow out of, typically by age eight or nine."

You don't have to wait that long. As a mom of six and a food editor who earns a living developing new recipes, I've gradually learned strategies that may help you stay sane and get your child to try (and maybe even like) foods he once turned down flat.

Rosemary Black is the author of The Kids' Holiday Baking Book (St. Martin's Press) and food editor at the New York Daily News.

Food for thought

Don't invest heart and soul in meal prep.
You spend hours carefully preparing the same dish that your little darling ate three helpings of yesterday -- and today she clamps her mouth shut. No matter how much you fume, it's impossible to force a child to eat something -- anything -- if she just plain doesn't feel like it.

So give yourself a break. You'll feel much less bugged if your child turns up her nose at ten-minute pan-cooked chicken tenders than you will if she rejects your elaborately prepared curried chicken with basmati rice and mango chutney. Save the fancy stuff for special dinners with your husband or adult friends.

Make mealtime pleasant.
Concentrate on ambience, not who's eating what. The dinner table is an ideal venue for conversation. Pose interesting questions: "What kind of animal would you like to be?" Or tell a funny story about your day; ask your child to do the same. It's a good habit to get into, and it takes the focus off the food. And try to avoid power struggles -- you'll just set meals up to be future battlegrounds. Don't make your child's refusal to eat the attention getter in the meal. It may take every ounce of willpower, but if you can refrain from nagging him to clean his plate, he's a lot more likely to do so.

Eat your words.
I didn't always set a stellar example for my children. I'd graze my way through the day, eating a muffin here and a frozen yogurt there, and then be dismayed when my kids wanted to eat the same way. But when I decided to model positive habits by actually sitting down at the table (what a concept!) to salads and stir-fries, I was pleased to find that my preschoolers followed suit.

Courtney Liebenrood, a mom in Collierville, Tennessee, says her husband has an insatiable sweet tooth. When her 3-year-old daughter, Savannah, began demanding the candy and chocolates her mom kept in the pantry, "I asked my husband to hide everything. Now there's a special place in the pantry for all the goodies, and we eat more nutritiously in front of Savannah."

Kick it up a notch

Serve miniature portions.
Imagine how you'd feel if you were at a dinner party and the hostess served you an enormous plate of lima beans (or some food you despise). Wouldn't you lose your appetite? Now consider if there was a dainty portion of limas on your plate -- you might even feel like sampling it. Keep in mind, too, that many nutrition experts advise serving one tablespoon of each food for every year of age. So to whet your child's appetite and appeal to her natural curiosity, put just a couple of spoonfuls of each food on her plate and let her ask for seconds.

Spice things up.
Figuring that my kids would shun liberally seasoned foods like Buffalo wings or Szechuan chicken, I cooked bland meals for them. Then at a party, my 5-year-old son, Kevin, was handed a plate of jerk chicken. I watched in amazement as he ate it all and asked for more. Back in my own kitchen, I created a marinade for chicken made with garlic, scallions, fresh ginger, and a pinch of red pepper. Kevin loved my version of this Caribbean classic, and I was soon making it regularly.

So don't be afraid to ratchet up the seasonings a bit. Why should Emeril have all the fun? Top cooked vegetables with low-fat Italian salad dressing; toss pasta with chopped sautéed garlic and olive oil; sprinkle chicken drumsticks with cinnamon, cloves, and Chinese five-spice powder before baking. (Besides tempting your finicky eater to widen his horizons, spicing up food may make your spouse grateful too.) To be sure you're on the right track, let your child taste-test as you cook -- he'll also be more inclined to eat the finished product.

Abide by the one-bite rule.
Our family honors this mealtime commandment: Thou shalt take one bite of everything without saying Eeeeuuuuw! I enforce it no matter what's on the menu. While some of the dishes never pass muster, others go on to become family favorites because my children realized they liked them -- once they tried them. Madeline was 4 when she tried a turkey burger, though she had already tasted, and rejected, beef burgers. She tentatively broke off a tiny corner and dipped it into the ketchup. Now she loves to eat turkey burgers in buns, slathered with ketchup.

Maureen Daugherty of Chicago finds that giving 4-year-old Sean a choice increases the likelihood that he'll willingly try something. "I'll offer him broccoli or squash," she says. "Once he chooses, he's more committed to eating it."

Be sneaky.
Just because your child refuses to eat zucchini on the plate doesn't mean she won't like it when it's disguised in muffins or a sweet bread. Shred some (peel it first, to get rid of telltale green flecks) and add it to quick bread or muffin batter, or even cookie dough. Or try it with carrots. Other ideas:

* Puree cooked peas, carrots, or peppers, then mix into pasta sauce.
* Boost your child's calcium intake by stirring low-fat grated cheese into egg dishes.
* Puree cooked beans and add to a basic meat-loaf mixture to increase its fiber content; your family will never know the difference.

Fun with food

Get creative.
You needn't spend an hour cutting sandwiches into animal shapes or constructing tuna-and-celery boats. But rename some traditional dishes and you might be pleasantly surprised. When I called broccoli "little trees" and topped the florets with just a bit of melted butter, my then 4-year-old daughter, Karla, ate them happily. A yogurt/sour-cream/onion blend was christened Diplodocus Dip, and Kevin went at it with steamed baby carrots and raw cucumber slices. When Joy Bauer, a registered dietitian and mom of three in Rye Brook, New York, serves food in an unusual container -- oatmeal in a small plastic sand pail or chicken or tuna salad in an ice cream cone -- her children gobble it up.

Kids love to eat with their hands too. So let them!

* Roll up slices of deli turkey and call them turkey fingers or turkey roll-ups.
* Set out fruit slices to dip in low-fat vanilla yogurt.
* Thread strawberries, chunks of banana, apple slices, and orange wedges onto wooden skewers.
* For big-kid kabobs, alternate cubes of cheese with cubes of cooked ham and cherry tomatoes.

Encourage grazing.
If your child hates sitting down long enough to eat, have a between-meals picnic. In the afternoon, kids tend to be ravenous and less picky. Leave small plates of good-for-you snacks like sliced fruit and cheese on a low table in the playroom. But don't wait for them to ask, since this can trigger a power struggle -- "I don't want fruit! I want chips!" Just casually put out the healthier foods and chances are they'll be scarfed down.

Call on the power of sugar.
Okay, it's bad to overdo it. But a judicious sweet touch can lead a choosy child in new directions. "Sprinkle some cinnamon and white sugar onto sweet potatoes," says Bauer. "Add a teaspoon of rainbow sprinkles and kids will eat everything from oatmeal to yogurt."

You can also get your child to eat a more nutritious cereal if you stir in a handful of a presweetened one. I let my kids choose one sugary cereal every shopping trip, to use as a topping, not a breakfast "main course."

Keep trying.
"Most children need to be exposed to a food at least ten times before they accept it," says Ellie Krieger, a registered dietitian in New York City and mom of an 8-month old. "Keep offering the food regularly and she'll probably eat it." And if not, take it out of rotation for six months or so.

"Our kids go through phases and we think they'll never try something again," says Tim Bete of Beavercreek, Ohio, father of Maria, 7; Paul, 5; and Annie, 2. "There was a time when Paul didn't like ice cream! But in the end, they do come back to trying -- and liking -- foods. Paul, who is very picky, will now eat broccoli."

When Madeline was 4, she hated cauliflower, a favorite of mine that I often make. I put a few steamed florets on her plate each time, and in a few weeks, she began to enjoy cauliflower. Of course, it didn't hurt that it's white!

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