My toddler became a picky eater once he advanced from baby and soft foods. 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.
Before my son turned two, I had no idea the challenges that lie ahead when faced with trying to feed a child with a very sensitive and limited palate. My son pretty much eats no vegetables – a Dietitian’s worst nightmare. Not even the starchy ones like potatoes, peas, corn, etc. His lunch and dinners consist of protein, fruit, and yogurt. I guess it could be worse, but I get tired of fixing the SAME THING all the time. Other than that, he will eat pizza, pasta, rice, bread, or any kind of snack food or dessert. He did not drink milk and never did, even chocolate milk (which I don’t buy). He HATES mixed textures, so I can’t mix little chunks of vegetables in with the rice or pasta sauce. He hates it so much that he will gag and vomit if I “force” him to take a bite. He loves cheese, but won’t eat something with cheese melted on it unless it’s a grilled cheese. He only likes water if it is “laced” with juice. I have an inner battle every day: the Dietitian vs the tired, stressed mom.
There are things that I do to try to increase his intake of vitamins, minerals, and protein, but I do not stress myself out to try to worry about it each and every day. 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 our dinners, 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. Dinner time should be a pleasant experience for everyone. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of sitting down together as a family for at least one meal a day. My son has had berries, yogurt, cheese and dry cheerios for many dinners. 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 nutritional intake. I am not talking about a child who doesn’t consume enough or omits most of the food groups from their daily intake. I am talking about a child that refuses to try different and new foods, omits one food group, or challenges you at the dinner table to eat something on their plate.
The good thing for me as a Dietitian, is that I can empathize and completely understand what parents of picky eaters are going through. I have worked with parents and children with selective palates for various reasons, such as lack of weight gain, excess weight gain (due to over-consumption of fast food and snack foods), constipation, and general concern for nutrition. I, myself, choose not to fight, fuss, and argue with my three year old about food. He’s three – he can’t reason with me. It’s not worth it. I DO NOT, however, make different meals from my own every night, based on his few preferences. I am not a short-order cook that works in a diner. I give him a multivitamin with Calcium and Vitamin D, a Probiotic, and try to feed him the healthiest versions of the foods that he likes. With time he is likely to broaden his preferences and try more foods, mainly because we eat everything in our house and I am a pretty darn good cook (I wouldn’t say so if it weren’t true). When he is an adult, it will be his prerogative. I can only do my best to set a good example, encourage him to at least try different foods, and continue to teach him the benefits of eating healthily with a sense of balance.
My tips for dealing with a picky eater:
1.Eat a varied and well-balanced diet yourself! Children model their behaviors, so if you rarely drink milk or eat anything green, then don’t expect them to.
2. Encourage your child to just try a food – not to eat an entire portion on their plate.
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. 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 child to participate in meal planning and cooking (for the older ones). 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.