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updated: 6/14/2011 1:19 PM

From your neighborhood nutritionist: Cut the fuss: Working with a picky eater

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By Christina Fitzgerald

This week, Joey's favorite meal is mac and cheese with strawberries and next week, he won't touch it. Frustration. As you finally have a small repertoire of guaranteed meals, Joey hits a food rut and won't eat any of it -- now, he fights even coming to the table. Frustration peaks. If this sounds like your house, you are not alone.

Picky eating is such a sore point in households that it's being tackled by dietitians, psychologists, speech therapists and now even celebrities. While almost all kids can be considered picky at times, finicky eating typically peaks in the toddler and preschool years when physical growth dramatically slows.

Whether your child has occasional finickiness or is more persistent in their ruts, there are strategies that can be adopted to help ease the battles and bring some enjoyment back to the dinner table.

For your child

•Create a schedule for meals and snacks, especially during these off-kilter summer months. Offering meals and snacks every three to four hours will not only help their body clocks regulate, but it will also teach them what it feels like to be full and hungry. Try to avoid giving in to in-between treats and encourage water instead.

•Create a pleasant atmosphere for meals. If you've been battling at the table for a while, you and your child could have rising anxiety before even sitting down. Establish a fun calming activity before a meal, such as "guess this tune" by humming each other's favorite songs. Remember, kids have shorter attention spans and pushing the limit can turn a pleasant meal into a catastrophe pretty quickly. Plan for dinner to last 20 to 30 minutes. If you find yourself with a dawdler, plan an enticing post-dinner activity to encourage their intake.

•Forget the "clean the plate" club. Expect your child to leave food on his plate and allow him to self-regulate his intake. Ever see your child leave half a bowl of ice cream behind because he was full? That's self-regulation in its prime and how nature intended us to eat. As parents, nurturing this awareness will support a life with healthier weight management. If you're still worried about the overall quantity, look at the big picture The intake over a week or two is more important than the intake in one meal or even one day. If your child is growing predictably on the growth chart, he is consuming enough overall.

•Food ruts are normal, just go with it -- for most, this too shall pass. It's normal and expected for a child, especially a toddler or preschooler, to stick with one food for a week at a time.

For yourself

•A great goal as the parent is to provide variety and opportunity in a relaxed environment. Stay calm. Take deep breaths. Whenever possible, try to have a second set of hands at the table so you can step away when you feel your patience waning. Children can sense stress and react, often by decreasing their food intake even more than was originally frustrating you.

•Never bribe or reward your child for eating and never punish him for not eating. It may seem logical in the moment, and may even produce results. There's a lot of talk and research these days regarding emotional eating and obesity. Kids, especially preschool age kids, have the "disease to please" which, in regard to food is their version of emotional eating. Keep their decision to eat or not to eat as neutral as possible.

•Avoid a power struggle. If your child refuses food, do not force them to eat but also avoid short-order cooking. As in other areas of their life, kids are learning how to control their environment and strike independence. Some relentless picky eaters could be "super tasters" and more sensitive to strong flavors. Consider offering a similar food within the food group that may have a milder taste without short-order cooking.

And last, the food

•Offer, time and time again. Just like the bedtime story you've read every night for three months straight, kids like familiarity in their food. Serve familiar, well-accepted foods with one new food or flavor. Provide constant opportunity for them to explore it -- stimulate their interest by varying the shape and size. Remember, it can take 10 serving occasions and often take up to 30 tastes before a picky eater will consider it acceptable.

•Tailor portions to the child's age. Children, young and older, can become easily overwhelmed by the portions on their plates. If you're working with a toddler, think tablespoon for each food group. For the older child, introduce new foods in small portions as you can always provide more.

Above all, remember to take deep breaths and discuss any of your concerns with the pediatrician. There are circumstances where picky eating can be more serious, and your pediatrician or dietitian can help you decipher the difference.

If you have any feedback, comments or questions on this topic or any others, I would love to hear from you. You can send me an email at christina@nourishedliving.com with your thoughts.

•Christina Fitzgerald, a registered dietitian and licensed dietitian nutritionist, is the owner of Nourished, Nutrition and Wellness, www.nourishedliving.com, serving Chicago and the suburbs. She lives with her husband and two young boys in the Northwest suburbs.