The Woes of Dealing with a Picky Eater - A Dietitian's Experience and Perspective

I have an inner battle every day: the Dietitian vs the tired, stressed mom of a picky eater. My toddler became a picky eater once he advanced from baby and soft foods. He used to eat ANYTHING - avocado, fish, beans, kale, cucumber, etc. This abruptly ended around age 2. My pediatrician suggested that it was a control issue – my toddler’s way, amongst the numerous other ways, to try to establish independence and test boundaries. I was not prepared for this, because my first child ate anything and everything. I also thought that because I am a Dietitian, and eat mostly well-balanced and healthy meals, that both my children would obviously take on the same eating habits, because eating habits and preferences are largely modeled after parents, RIGHT? 

My son, staring at his fork during meal time. 

My son, staring at his fork during meal time. 

My son exists off a limited number of food sources, many of which are pretty healthy. After all, don't I do the shopping for the house? He eats almost no vegetables – a Dietitian’s worst nightmare. He won't even eat potatoes - including french fries! I'm not complaining about that! I do admit that I get tired of fixing the SAME THING all the time. He does eat pizza, some pasta, rice, bread, cold cereal, cheese, yogurt, fruits, peas (sometimes), corn, chicken, turkey, ham (on a sandwich only), and beef occasionally.  He has never liked milk to drink, even chocolate milk (which I don’t buy).

I may have an extremely picky eater, but I am the one who controls what foods are available for meals and snacks. I try to have different colors at lunch and dinner, and try to have at least 3 food groups. For example, he will get a sandwich with meat and cheese for lunch with cut up fruit and yogurt. I supplement the vitamins and fiber through fruit and putting some veggies in his smoothies and pasta sauces. He also will not eat anything that has combined textures, such as raisins in muffins or peas and rice, but he will eat them separately. In fact, he hates it so much that he will gag and vomit if I “force” him to take a bite. This really isn't a problem for me - I think that for small children, simplicity is best. I stick to simple flavors and simple textures. If a child has a bad experience with a food, they will often refuse to eat the food again because of the association with the bad experience (like food being too hot or having too much flavor). I accidentally gave my son some macaroni and cheese that was too hot (I put my lips to it, and didn't think it was too hot). When it hit his mouth, he spit it out rapidly, and now he won't eat it any more, after having loved it. 

I don't spend all day trying to find a food that pleases him, nor do I make him special meals every night. If he is truly hungry, he will eat from the choices I give him. Children will eat when they are hungry. If they aren't hungry, don't try to force-feed. Children are better at listening to their hunger cues than adults are. My son eats all morning and day, but eats very little in the evening. That's okay! He's more active during the day and needs the energy. I personally don't believe that dinner time at the table should be a battle. It should be a pleasant time, for all. I don't make my toddler sit there at the table if he isn't eating to stare at the rest of us eating. He is too hyper to do that. You can judge me, because I know that wasn't the way a lot of us were raised. You had to sit at the table until everyone was finished. I do try to encourage him to stay, but I don't make it grounds for a temper tantrum. I do leave his plate on the table for a while, should he change his mind and decide that he is hungry. 

My son, eating one of his favorite foods - pizza. 

My son, eating one of his favorite foods - pizza. 

 I look at the big picture – if 5 of the 7 days have been pretty good, then it has been a good week. My husband, daughter and I will “ooh” and “aah” when we eat something on our plate, and all he does is say matter of factly, “You like that. I don’t like that.” There’s enough to stress about as a mom. As long as a child is growing and gaining weight and pooping appropriately, and there are no outward signs of deficiency, then don’t give yourself or your little one a hard time. This is my educated professional and personal opinion – others may challenge me. Obviously, a parent should speak with their child’s pediatrician if there are abnormalities or questions regarding health issues that may be related to poor nutritional intake. These are general suggestions, not indicated for a child who has a disability that limits intake, or a child that has severe food intolerances or restrictions.  These suggestions apply to a child that often refuses to try different and new foods, omits one food group, or challenges you at the dinner table to eat something on their plate.

My tips for dealing with a picky eater:

1.Evaluate your own habits. Your children are watching! Eat a varied and well-balanced diet yourself. Children model their behaviors, so if you rarely sit down to eat, drink milk, or eat anything green, then don’t expect them to just because you say. Even if they refuse now, they will see you and associate dinner as a time to sit at the table together, and to enjoy eating a well-rounded and healthy meal. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of sitting down together as a family for at least one meal a day.

2. Encourage your child to just try a food , but don't be pushy. Do not put an entire portion on their plate to start. They can always ask for more.

3. Don’t give up if your child doesn’t like something the first or second time. Maybe try to cook something a different way.

4. If your child won’t eat vegetables, then allow them to have vitamin-rich fruits in their natural form (not as juice, dried, or canned with syrup).

5. Use smoothies as a way to increase protein and vitamin/mineral intake. You can blend greens and vegetable puree in smoothies. Here is my recipe for a smoothie that I give my toddler: Picky Eater Smoothie

6. Try to “disguise” vegetables in other foods that your child likes by mincing or pureeing them, however don’t wear yourself out trying to make vegetable puree for your next batch of muffins. Put them in sauces, soups, and smoothies. Some stores already offer foods with "hidden" vegetables. Adding vegetables often alters the color of the product, so if your child doesn’t want a green smoothie, then you shouldn’t add kale to a vanilla smoothie or muffin mix.

7. Don’t reward trying a piece of broccoli with a full serving of dessert or something sweet and unhealthy. I always recommend avoiding food rewards, however if you are going to trade ice cream for broccoli, it should be one bite for one bite!

8. Sometimes reverse psychology works. If you say, “I don’t want you to eat any of those peas,” then sometimes the rebellious ones will take a bite. 

9. Encourage your older child to participate in meal planning and cooking. Often if they feel included and are given a sense of independence, they will surprise you and be more willing to explore new flavors and foods.

10. Teach your child about the benefits of eating a variety of foods in the different food groups in a way that they relate and can understand. There are many great children’s books that are creatively encouraging them to eat their veggies.

11. Some children like sticker charts or reward systems - consider a tangible reward such as stickers or coins for trying or eating certain foods. 

12. KEEP IT SIMPLE! Don't mix textures, serve food with strong flavors, or serve food that is too hot. Serve foods individually - some children are very sensitive to mixed textures such as peas and carrots and raisins in oatmeal. Avoid chewy fo