Having a picky eater in the house can turn every mealtime into a major battle. Nearly 85% of parents say they have a child who is or has been fussy about food—and picky eaters aren’t partial to the United States. According to Abbott Nutrition in Singapore, it’s typical for kids around the world to prefer a small selection of favorite foods, gravitate toward familiar items, and to be drawn to sweets and refined carbohydrates. Geneticists at Monell Chemical Senses Center found that children are programmed to like sweet tastes because this fills a biological need for higher energy food sources. Additionally, self-protective instincts cause young eaters to avoid bitter or sour tastes, which can indicate a food is toxic or spoiled. Sadly, this puts many healthy foods, like soy and veggies, in the suspicious foods category!
Although these picky eating habits are a classic symptom of childhood, there are ways that parents can overcome challenges to broaden their kid’s dietary horizon. If you’re frustrated with your child’s food refusals, try some of the following tips to encourage her to adopt healthy eating habits:
- Small changes reap big rewards. Begin by slowly making a few small changes toward a more nutritious diet. Once these few become routine, then change another couple of items. For example, instead of serving fried chips, try whole-grain pretzels; add sliced fruit, berries, seeds, or nuts to a favorite cereal or oatmeal; gradually reduce the amount of salt, sugar, butter, and cheese that you use in preparing food. Within a year, you’ll have improved your child’s overall diet significantly.
- Create healthier versions of favorite foods. By making small adjustments over time, your child's taste buds will adjust until you can finally replace the old version with a healthier alternative. Try replacing one slice of white bread with whole wheat in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or mix sugar-based jelly and fruit-only spread, and combine processed peanut butter with a low-sugar, non–trans fat version. Increase the amount of the healthier ingredients slowly, until the entire sandwich has been remade into a healthy lunch.
- Give kids a choice. Routinely serve two types of fruit with lunch and two vegetables at dinner. You’ll double the chance your child will eat at least one. Plus, a study by the National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families, tells us that picky eaters must see a new dish as many as ten to fifteen times before even tasting it! Serve up that broccoli or squash frequently to build familiarity, and eventually she’ll be more willing to try it. You can also engage your child's decision-making skills by offering choices from several healthy options. For example, ask if she'd like her carrots raw or cooked, if she'd prefer brown rice to whole-grain pasta.
- Get a little sneaky. While you are teaching your child about nutrition, go ahead and hide some vegetables, fruits or grains within tried and true recipes to up her daily quota. It's easy to add chopped spinach to hamburgers, pureed squash into macaroni and cheese, crushed cauliflower into mashed potatoes, chicken bits to Raman noodles, or chopped nuts and seeds to flavored oatmeal. This way, your kids reap the benefits of healthy foods every day.
- Unleash your inner artist. Your kid is more likely to try food that looks appetizing, so turn her meal into a work of art. String beans or noodles around the edge of the plate, alternate vegetables, meat and potatoes in stripes, or mold her dish into faces, flowers and shapes. You can even serve dinner in a muffin tin or ice cube tray with a bit of food in each compartment. Get creative and see what happens!
- Choose wise rules. Sure, it would be great to ban fast food, sugar, and soda from your child's life, but commercials, play dates, class parties, and other situations present unhealthy options on a daily basis. Rigid rules are not the answer though—the Journal of the American College of Nutrition tells us that parents who impose strict rules about eating can end up with extremely finicky foodies or overeaters. Instead, create a few practical rules; such as eating only one treat a day, avoiding sugar at breakfast, and trying one bite of each dish during mealtimes.
- Teach and encourage independence. You won't always be with your little one at meals or snack time, so it’s important to set her up for success by teaching her how to make good food choices. Point out food label facts and compare nutrients on one choice versus another. Provide an older kid with general guidelines and then set her free to work within them; allow her to pack her own lunch, but give her a checklist of the types of foods it must contain, such as one fruit, a whole grain, a vegetable, and a protein. Allowing her to help prepare meals and snacks creates a more concrete connection to lessons about healthy eating.
- Practice what you preach. It's easier to teach how to eat healthily when you’re leading the way with your own food choices. An eight-year study of baby-mother pairs conducted at the University of Tennessee found that moms tend not to offer their kids foods that they dislike themselves. So if you can’t bear Brussels sprouts, chances are your child won’t be served any. Your kids learn most about healthy eating habits from watching what you put on your plate and into your mouth. If you show her that fruit makes a great snack, vegetables are enjoyable, and sweets are to be savored in small and infrequent servings, she might just follow your lead.
For the majority of kids, picky eating is a phase that they’ll gradually grow out of, but until then, making small changes can help your child get the nutrients she needs—without a daily dinner table dispute.
Elizabeth Pantley is a parenting expert, speaker and the author of how-to books for fed-up moms and dads, including the popular ”No-Cry” series. Her firsthand experience as a mother of four allows her to relate to readers, and offer sound advice for tricky parenting issues.