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Picky Eater Solutions

  • Brian Hagiwara

    "If you make me eat this, I will die!" my 5-year-old son, Daniel, wailed when I mixed peas with pasta. The horror! But he's hardly the first kid to claim mortal danger from a pea. Others eat only white food, won't go near meat or gag at the thought of eating a Tater Tot that's touched the burger. In fact, nearly two thirds of parents describe at least one problem with their child's eating, according to a study in Contemporary Pediatrics. Although pickiness is normal and tends to lessen with age, you probably still feel you should do something if your child is living on frozen waffles. Know what you can do? Relax. There are no significant differences in overall nutrient intake between picky eaters and other kids, another study in the same journal found. And most likely, your child's diet seems worse than it is. See why on the next page, and get plenty of tips on handling all kinds of fusspots—even yours.

    Looking for snacks that will please your little one? Check out 22 Healthy Snacks Kid Will Love.

  • Veer

    The power struggle: over!

    Little kids long to control their worlds, and doing that through food comes naturally. To break the push-pull cycle:

    Let go of your end of the emotional rope.
    You can't force your child to do anything, especially eat, so just stop trying. Simply offer her nutritious, varied foods—and eat them yourself. She can have hers, or not, but you're showing her how. Do you still remember having to eat your veggies or clean your plate before you could leave the table? Adam Strauss, M.D., a pediatrician in Westwood and Mansfield, MA, offers a word of caution. "When parents demand that their kids eat certain foods, they're attaching negative connotations to it. Pretty soon, the struggle is worse." Put the food on her plate, but if it stays there, don't push her and don't stress over it.

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    Give straightforward praise, even if he takes only one bite of something new.
    For example: "It's great that you tried the chili!" Basing the praise on how you feel ("Mommy's so happy!") sends a questionable message: He controls your emotions with his fork. "I used to feel really attached to my kids' eating the dishes I'd taken the time to make. My emphasis on my split-pea soup especially made everyone miserable. Finally, one day I ignored the soup but put out some fun sides, and the kids ended up tasting the soup," recalls Heather Swain, mom of Graham, 2, and Clementine, 4, in Brooklyn.

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    Don't get hung up on the time of day your child eats, or how much she eats at a sitting.
    It's okay if your kid doesn't eat three square meals every day as long as over the course of a week or two she eats things from each food group.

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    Offer choices that don't matter. 
    You may face stubborn insistence that toast have a corner unbuttered to avoid messy hands, or that cereal be served only in a Go Diego Go! bowl, or that nothing touch. While this kind of behavior is draining, it's typical at this age, says Dr. Strauss. Give him an optionthe green plate or the blue? Offering your child a limited choice is often enough to end the power struggle. But make your rules clear: "At home, you can choose your cup, but when we're out, you have to use whatever they have."

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    Quirks: solved!

    My kid won't eat meat
    The texture turns off many preschoolers, and that's fine. "My two-and-a-half-year-old is basically a vegetarian, barring hot dogs and his latest discovery, ham," says Elizabeth Gonzalez, mom of Jason, 2, in Yorktown Heights, NY. "I offer lots of peanut butter, cheese, yogurt and veggie burgers, and he's doing just fine. We always ask if he wants meat when I make it, but when he invariably says no, we say A-OK and try not to press it." Like Jason, your child can still get all the protein he needs from:

    • yogurt, cheese or cottage cheese
    • nachos with beans and cheese
    • hard-boiled eggs or any egg dish
    • his favorite crackers dipped in hummus or spread with peanut (or nut) butter
    • cheese or even meat-filled ravioli (the pasta exterior goes a long way for meat-haters)
    • mini-tuna melts (if he's game for fish, but stick to chunk light, only twice a week)
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    Veggies? Yeah, right
    This is the most common picky-eater problem. To convince him it's easy being green, try:

    • thinly sliced veggies stir-fried with teriyaki sauce, maybe a little chicken and rice. Go with carrot slices and baby corn to start. Water chestnuts have little taste, and can be a good stepping-stone to serious veggies
    • zucchini muffins and veggie lasagna. (Find the world's easiest, kid-friendliest recipes at 10 Tasty Veggie Kid Meals.)
    • lettuce wraps. Use a filling he'll eat (anything goes, from turkey to cream cheese) and a romaine leaf as a wrap. The novelty of the whole thing may just win him over.
    • dressing—honey mustard, ranch, even ketchup or melted butter—with veggies for dipping. Put the plate next to a sure thing (say, grilled cheese) to lure him to the table. We all tend to eat more when the food is right in front of us.
    • thinking outside the frozen-corn box. "Graham hated all vegetables—or so we thought," says Heather Swain. "We tried peas, carrots, corn...then we put kale in front of him. Turns out, he likes the bitter 'adult' veggies like kale, chard and broccoli rabe. By continually offering him choices, we finally hit on what appeals to his taste."
  • Brian Hagiwara

    Unless it's white, it's a no-go
    Preschoolers like lots of colors in their pictures, but not always on their plates. Consider:

    • fruit smoothies. Blend a banana with vanilla yogurt for a healthy sweet snack. You can freeze this for ice pops, too.
    • mac and cheese made with whole-wheat (or whole-wheat—blend) macaroni. This may not fly, but you've got a better shot with a cheese sauce than a tomato sauce or butter.
    • oven-baked fries—half regular and half sweet potato to ease your child into the idea of other spuds.
    • half white-/half whole-wheat—bread toast and sandwiches in fun shapes. Use cookie cutters.
    • a rainbow meal. Take her to the market to pick out red, orange, yellow, purple, pink and green foods.
  • Veer

    Bright spots and trouble spots, revealed!

    We tracked a gaggle of preschoolers called picky by their moms. We then asked Inger Hustrulid, R.D., a family nutritionist and president of the Massachusetts Dietetic Association, to look at the log of The Pickiest: Genie, 4. Guess what? Hustrulid found some good things. Check them out, along with her quick fixes for the not-so-good.

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    Monday:
    Breakfast: chocolate-chip waffle with fat-free whipped cream, orange juice
    Yay! Genie eats breakfast. Kids who skip this meal may be more irritable.

    Lunch: 3 chicken nuggets, orange juice

    Dinner: buttered pasta, half of a Shake 'N Bake chicken breast

    Snacks: Teddy Grahams, ice pop, pack of Care Bears fruit snacks

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    Tuesday:
    Breakfast: Froot Loops, milk, orange juice
    Trade super-sweet cereal for one with less than 8 grams sugar and more than 4 grams fiber, like Clifford Crunch.

    Lunch: 1 slice pizza, cake, M&M's

    Dinner: 3 chicken fingers, a few french fries, 1/4 of brownie à la mode, milk
    Sweet treats are fine, but try to keep them to once a day.

    Snacks: pack of Care Bears fruit snacks, a slice of 2% mozzarella cheese

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    Wednesday:
    Breakfast: Froot Loops, milk, orange juice

    Lunch: 4 Mickey Mouse cheese ravioli with butter and salt, pack of Transformers fruit snacks
    Try olive oil or tomato sauce on pasta for more healthy fats and lycopene.

    Dinner: 2 fried mozzarella sticks (breading picked off), 1/3 cup plain white rice, 1/4 cup Rice pudding, cranberry juice

    Snacks: pack of Transformers fruit snacks, apple

  • Thursday:
    Breakfast: chocolate- chip waffle with fat-free whipped cream, orange juice

    Lunch: Velveeta Shells & Cheese

    Dinner: 3 chicken fingers with french fries, chocolate ice cream
    Sweet-potato fries make a vitamin C-packed substitute. You can buy them frozen.

    Snacks: pack of Transformers fruit snacks, lollipop, half of a 2% Polly-O string cheese, banana
    Another high point: Genie eats plenty of whole fruit.

  • Stephanie Rausser

    Friday:
    Breakfast: chocolate-chip waffle with fat-free whipped cream, orange juice

    Lunch: 3 chicken nuggets, orange juice

    Dinner: 4 Mickey Mouse cheese ravioli with butter and salt
    Offering her "usual" with a child's-fist-size portion of veggies is ideal. Isn't happening? Just keep trying.

    Snacks: half of a 2% Polly-O string cheese, apple

  • Saturday:
    Breakfast: chocolate-chip waffle with fat-free whipped cream, orange juice

    Lunch: 3 chicken nuggets, orange juice

    Dinner: buttered pasta, corn
    Corn is fine, but try to swap in a new veggie now and then. Baby carrots are a safe bet.

    Snacks: half of a 2% Polly-O string cheese, ice pop, pear, Tootsie Roll, Teddy Grahams, apple
    The string cheese is a great calcium-rich snack.

  • Sunday:
    Breakfast: chocolate-chip waffle with fat-free whipped cream, orange juice
    Switch to a 100% whole-grain waffle. Try your luck at topping with peanut butter for protein and sustained energy.

    Lunch: 3 chicken nuggets, orange juice
    Genie actually has protein every day. Nuggets count!

    Dinner: 1 slice brisket with gravy, a few sips of matzo-ball soup, 1 Mallomar

    Snacks: banana, apple, Teddy Grahams, 2 fun-size Hershey bars, lollipop

    Emily Franklin's next book, Too Many Cooks: Kitchen Adventures with 1 Mom, 4 Kids, and 102 Recipes, will be published in May.

    You can learn more about you child's possible point of view through our Diary of a Picky Eater and gain more insight about Feeding a Picky Eater by hearing the experience of a fellow parent.

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