Written By: Alison Barkman MS, RD, CDN
As a nutrition student I learned about eating issues in children such as picky eating, food jags, and mealtime battles. I wasn’t a mom at the time, but I remember thinking, that won’t happen with my kids! I assumed because I’m a healthy eater, and not remotely picky, that my kids would be the same.
Here I am now, a mom of two boys (three and five years old), and I’m dealing with picky eating, food jags, and mealtime wars. When my boys first started eating solid foods I could give them ANYTHING. Pureed broccoli, mashed sweet potatoes, egg salad sandwiches made with hummus, turkey loaf stuffed with veggies, or cooked spinach sprinkled with grated parmesan. Then some time around the two-year-old mark, they became more independent, and thus more vocal about their food likes and dislikes.
If it were up to my boys, chicken nuggets or mac n’ cheese would be on the dinner menu nightly. My older son sometimes likes salmon, the younger one screams at it. They barely touch vegetables. One day my older guy asked if he could put a few lettuce leaves on top of his pizza and I was ecstatic.
To my dismay, I began saying things like: “You better eat that broccoli!,” and “Fine, if you don’t eat that dinner you’re not getting dessert.” I would cringe because I knew these were the absolute WRONG things to say. Suddenly, I feared my yelling at dinner would create children who ended up HATING veggies, eating when they’re not truly hungry, and obsessing about desserts.
I began practicing the strategies I learned as a student, and things I continue to learn through reading the latest research, pediatric nutrition articles, and attending webinars. As a nutrition expert and mom in the trenches of healthy eating battles with kids, here are some tips I can share:
#1: I no longer yell: “If you don’t eat dinner, NO dessert!” Shame on me, I know better. Asking your child to eat their dinner with the promise of dessert afterward is sending the wrong message. This can be the start of teaching a child to eat when they're not hungry and "clear their plate.” Now, if my kids don't eat their dinner but ask for dessert, I still give it to them, with a caveat. I give them a choice between two “dessert” items and only allow a small amount. For example, two chocolate chip cookies (not the whole sleeve), a small bowl of grapes, maybe a frozen banana (they think this tastes like ice cream), or two graham crackers. The end result is that they are happy to have "dessert" and for me I know it wasn't too high in calories, fat or sugar. It also creates less of an aura of dessert being some tempting, hard-to-get treat that they will only get if they first eat foods they don’t like or want.
#2: If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. I DO NOT make various dinners for each child to suit their likes and dislikes. This feeds into picky eating, not to mention would make me exhausted. I get a plate ready with only a few bites of salmon, a small amount of vegetable, and a drop of rice. I put the plates in front of them and hear the whines and protests. The older guy may eat his salmon and ask for more. The little guy pushes everything around, yells and screams, and eventually he may eat some rice. I let them sit there a while until it's obvious there is no interest in eating anymore. Dinner is done. I do this night after night. Offering a small amounts does two things: 1) it gives them a chance to try the food and ask for more if they like it; and, 2) if they hate it, I don't get mad about wasting food because I'm only throwing away a small amount. It can take a child up to a dozen times offering a new food until he/she actually wants to eat it.
#3: Offer vs. serve. Instead of saying "You are going to eat chicken, veggies and potato for dinner", I try to give them some choices to make them somewhat empowered. I make it attractive for my kids, but also easy for me. In the case of a chicken dinner I may say: "Would you like the mixed veggies or would you prefer sliced apples?" They will probably choose the apples, especially if I offer to bake them and sprinkle cinnamon on top. When they eat the apple slices they are getting something healthy, and we’ll try next time for veggies again.
As with anything, these strategies will not always work. Feeding kids a healthy diet is a work-in-progress and each child is unique. Kids will love sweet potatoes one day, then hate it the next. This is normal. It doesn't mean as a parent you must tap-dance around their daily likes and dislikes, and accommodate their new picky eating habits. It is best to:
1. Have set meal and snack times to give some structure to eating vs. grazing all day, watching TV while they eat or having other distractions around food
2. Make the meals healthy and with a variety of foods. Try serving one item on their plate you know they will enjoy, along with your healthy picks.
3. If your child doesn't eat, try not to get angry and show disappointment. This will create stress and anxiety at mealtimes and may make things worse for future meals.
4. If your child hates a food, like spinach, it is better to continuously offer it rather than never offer it again. Remember, if it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind.
Parents, you are the gatekeepers to healthy eating for your child. The best you can do is keep offering healthy choices, create a stress-free eating environment, and trust that one day down the road, all of your hard work will pay off!
About Alison Barkman, MS, RD, CDN
Alison is an adjunct professor of nutrition at LIU Post and has a new private practice, Alison Barkman Nutrition, in Garden City, NY. In her practice she focuses on sports and pediatric nutrition. She can be emailed at AlisonBarkmanNutrition@gmail.com. Facebook: @Alisonbarkmannutrition. Twitter: @alisonbarkmanRD. LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/alisonbarkman
 Help Them Try New Foods. (n.d.). Retrieved June 6, 2015, from http://www.choosemyplate.gov/preschoolers/picky-eaters/new-foods.html
About the Author
Lisa Samuels is a Long Island native who is currently a Dietetic Intern at LIU Post. She has a B.A. in Art History from Ithaca College, a B.S. in Nutrition from LIU Post & was also a practicing baker for two years. Lisa has finally found her calling. Combining her love for food, writing, and nutrition, she strives to bring you the latest news in the field.
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