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Picky Eating

Brian Hagiwara
In this guide:
  • Encourage adventurous eating
  • When all else fails
  • What not to do
  • Summary

 

Overview

If it seems like your child's eating only a few bites of plain pasta, you're not alone. Nearly 40 percent of kids under 6 are picky eaters, and while it can be frustrating for you, it's actually a normal developmental stage. At this age, kids' instinctual response to something new is suspicion and caution, and they may be asserting their independence by refusing your offerings. But picky eating won't last forever - most kids grow out of it by age 8 or 9. In the meantime, there are plenty of things you can do to try to expand his palate.


Encourage adventurous eating

Use these tips and your child may finally eat his broccoli!

Be patient. A typical toddler needs multiple exposures to a new food before he'll risk tasting it - and 10 to 20 tastes before he actually likes it. So put the food on the table and let him decide if he wants to try it. Offer a variety of foods - like a main dish, rice or bread, a vegetable and/or fruit, and some milk - so there's something he'll want to eat. If he still won't try the "new" food after ten exposures, take it out of rotation for six months or so.

Cut back on portions. A toddler's stomach is the size of his fist, and he's growing only one-tenth as much as he did as a baby, so he likely needs less food than you think. Dainty portions are also more appetizing. A few spoonfuls will appeal more to your child's natural curiosity.

Involve your child. He'll be more interested in eating the final product. Ask, "Should we have green beans or broccoli?" But don't offer too many options - he might feel confused. Share kitchen duty, too. Have him tear the lettuce for a salad or pour ingredients. At the grocery store, invite him to pick a new fruit to try or to select a different colored veggie every week.

Get creative. Try presenting foods in new and fun ways:

Set the bar. Have a salad-bar night at home with lots of cut-up veggies so your child can create his own combination.

Make art. Give your child a pita as a base, and have him decorate it with a face: olive eyes, tomato ears, carrot nose, and green-bean smile.

Rename it. Call broccoli "tiny trees," baby carrots "logs rolling across a plate," or banana slices "banana wheels."

Ditch plates. Use an ice cube tray or a muffin tin to serve small portions of colorful foods, or put chicken or tuna salad in an ice cream cone.

Roll it up. Instead of making sandwiches, try rolling some lunch meat and cheese slices in a tortilla, or some turkey around a mozzarella stick.

Stick it. Thread strawberries, banana chunks, and apple slices onto wooden skewers with blunt ends. Or put bite-sized food on toothpicks so your child can "sample" everything.

Add flavor. Kids have delicate taste buds, but that doesn't mean they can't enjoy flavorful food. In fact, with their naturally sensitive palates, children really notice when something tastes good. So toss some garlic or olives with pasta sauce, use ginger in a chicken dish, or sprinkle cinnamon on cooked carrots.

Appeal to her toddler ego. Grab a veggie off her plate, say "Mine!" and eat it. Your child may just eat one herself in protest. If she has an older sibling, say, "I see you're not eating your chicken. Mind if I give it to your brother?" Your child's competitive urge might kick in, and she'll try some for herself.

Be sneaky. What kids don't know won't hurt them
and in this case, it'll be good for them!

  • Puree cooked peas, carrots, or peppers, then mix into pasta sauce. (Or just add some baby-food veggies.)
  • Substitute half whole-wheat flour for white flour when making baked goods.
  • Mash up cooked cauliflower and add to mashed potatoes.
  • When heating up a can of cream-based soup, substitute milk for water.
  • Add shredded zucchini or carrots to quick bread or muffin batter.


When all else fails

Although it can be frustrating to have your child constantly reject what you're offering, don't let meals become a battleground. Keep the atmosphere pleasant. Rather than focusing on what your child's eating (or not eating), try telling a funny story about your day and ask him to do the same. Or distract him by posing interesting questions: "What kind of animal would you be?"


What not to do

Don't force your child to eat. Pressuring will only backfire and make meals unpleasant for everyone. You'll also be teaching him to ignore his internal signals for hunger and fullness, which can lead to overeating later on.


"My four-year-old loves to squeeze ketchup, shake salad dressing, and sprinkle Parmesan, so I put all the condiments out for her. She eats more when she gets to dress up her own food."
 -- Holly Garman, Port Washington, NY

Submit your tasty tip

Don't use dessert as a bribe. It may work in the short-term, but eventually your child will start hating the food you're asking her to eat because she'll view it as a punishment. Better to let her have a little dessert no matter what she eats at dinner. It'll help her learn that sweets can be a small part of a healthy diet.

Don't worry! Although it may seem like your child's subsisting on air, he's likely eating more than you think. Research has shown that kids whose parents think they are picky eaters have diets that are not significantly less nutritious or lower in calories than those of other kids, once they were adjusted for body weight. If you're still concerned, ask your pediatrician.


Summary

Picky eating is normal and common in young kids. You can use a variety of ways to try to entice a fussy eater to accept new foods, but it's best not to pressure him. Just keep mealtimes pleasant, and remember that, like any phase, this too shall pass.


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