You’ve cooked a nutritious meal for your family, but as you sit down at the table your infant flings his strained peas at the dog and your independent toddler will only eat cheese pizza and grilled cheese sandwiches. It has become a nightly battle to get them to eat their vegetables, or in some cases, even try the meal that was prepared, and you begin to worry that your children aren’t eating enough and are malnourished. This scenario has become all too familiar. The constant struggle is not only exhausting, but challenging to each parent’s relationship with their child. Unfortunately, there is not one simple, step-by-step solution that will solve picky eating, or mealtime struggles, no matter what some books might say. Every child is different, as is every parent-child relationship. Outlined below are tips that may bring peace to mealtimes:
- If at first you don’t succeed – As babies start on solid foods the advice from the doctor seems simple: start with cereal and then introduce one baby food every few days. Easy, right? The thing they don’t mention is that some babies don’t take to this new way of feeding very easily – screaming, crying, and spitting ensue. What to do? Don’t stress about it. Until around 9 months babies still get the majority of their nutrition from breast milk or formula. All cereals and foods are just supplemental. If there is a food that your baby doesn’t seem to want, don’t force the issue. Simply try again another day. Some foods need to be introduced several times before they will even try it.
- Routines – As infants, routines are hard to put in place. Babies sleep at odd times and eat at even odder times; trying to dictate a schedule will only add undue stress. Older children, however, respond very well to routines. Having a mealtime routine that include what time to eat, setting the table, washing hands, and cleaning up, can help relieve mealtime chaos.
- Snacks – Snacks between meals are actually a very good thing for kids (and mom and dad, too). Studies have shown that our metabolism actually functions better when you eat several small meals per day, rather than three large meals. Make sure your child is snacking on healthy, nutritious foods. An apple, carrot or celery sticks, or fat-free yogurt are much better choices than cookies or a bag of chips.
- Family meals – Mealtime should be a time of day for the family to sit and spend time together. You can talk to your kids about their day, school, their friends, anything! Even if you are eating take out – eat it at the kitchen table. And do yourselves a favor, turn off the television, put down the cell phones, and enjoy each other’s company.
- Set a good example – If you never eat your green beans, salad, carrots, or broccoli, then how can you expect your child to? Surprisingly, the things that are good for them are good for you too!
- Juice – Juice is good for your kids, right? It gives them servings of fruits and all those healthy vitamins? Wrong. The main ingredient of juice is: SUGAR! The process of making juice takes out most of the healthy and nutritious parts of the fruit. Kids love it because of how sweet it is, and they tend to drink so much that they are not hungry for meals. It is recommended that kids drink no more than 4-6 ounces of juice per day, but actually the amount they NEED is zero! Real fruit is much better for your child and is an excellent source of fiber. Along the same lines, if your child is telling you they are not hungry at meal times, make sure they are not drinking any fluids 1-1 ½ hours before meals, and give them something to drink only after they have eaten their food.
- Don’t be a short order cook – If a child knows that all they have to do is wait long enough and they will get what they want, they have absolutely no reason to try something they don’t like. Make a meal, put it on a plate and sit it in front of them. Tell them this is what is for dinner, either eat it or don’t. After that it is in their hands. If they decide they do not want to eat it, save their plate for them. If at some point they come asking for something to eat, reheat and serve. Many parents may feel they are starving their children or are being mean, but it won’t hurt them to miss a meal. If you stay firm (and consistent) they will realize that the only meal they may eat is the one you serve them.
All of these tips have come from research, seasoned pediatrician’s advice, and first hand-experience. If you find yourself with a picky eater or if meals turn into a nightly battle, keep these tips in mind. However, always discuss your child’s diet with your doctor. If your child’s picky eating has become excessive to the point of their weight being effected, then the risk of malnutrition should be addressed.