Is mealtime a constant battle with your child no matter what you do? While some foods may be acceptable to your picky eater, they are typically not the healthiest options. You may feel alone in your struggle but a survey of 2,000 parents revealed that 55% of them have a child with picky eating habits who are resistant when served new foods. Of that group, 83% were worried that their child isn’t getting enough nutrients as a result. If you’re feeling frustrated and concerned about your child’s habits, there are a variety of ways to help ease them into enjoying new and different foods.
Why Children are Picky Eaters
When throwing away yet another plate of good food, you may ask yourself why your child has to be so difficult. It’s important to try to understand what might make your child more sensitive to some foods. Certain tastes, smells, and textures can all be a factor for picky eaters. The best ways to inspire acquired tastes are to present new foods to your child without using them as a punishment, bribe, or reward.
“It can take up to 10 times for baby to accept a new food — so don’t give up,” says Dr. Whitney Casares, Gerber’s pediatric medical consultant and a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “For parents looking to incorporate plant-based choices, I advise ‘feeding baby the rainbow’ from a variety of foods (whole grains, fruits, veggies, meats, fish, legumes, etc.)”
Side Effects of Picky Eating
- Nutrient Deficiency: When a child’s diet lacks a diverse amount of meat, fruits, and vegetables, the body might not receive nutrients like iron and zinc.
- Constipation: A diet low in fruit and vegetables often causes constipation in picky eaters due to a lack of dietary fiber.
- Risk of Obesity: Researchers claim picky eaters are at a higher risk for becoming overweight as older children and adolescents, because they are more likely to prefer calorie-dense foods and a lower intake of fruits and vegetables. The number of US children who are overweight surged to unprecedented levels during the pandemic, with the monthly rate of BMI increase nearly doubling to 1.93 times its pre-pandemic rate.
- Risk of Type 2 Diabetes: When the risk of obesity is present, the risk of type 2 diabetes typically isn’t far behind. A study cited obesity as one of the possible causes of the rise in type 2 diabetes in children. For example, during 2008 and 2009 an estimated 5,089 people younger than 20 were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes each year, according to SEARCH for Diabetes in Youth, a multicenter study funded by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health.
How to Encourage Kids to be Less Picky
Although it may feel impossible right now, there are strategies to help get your child to eat a balanced diet and return to peaceful evenings at the dinner table.
1. Don’t Force It
If your child says they aren’t hungry, don’t force them or bribe them to eat. While you might think this will help, it could only reinforce food as a power struggle and create anxiety for your child during mealtime. Try serving your child small portions in order to give them the opportunity to ask for more.
2. Create a Routine
Establishing a routine of serving meals and snacks at the same time each day gives your child the opportunity to eat nutritious food during snack time if they aren’t happy with a meal. When it comes to beverages, only offer milk or 100% juice during meals so that they don’t fill up on them throughout the day. Serving water between meals increases your child’s appetite during mealtime.
3. Focus on the Food, Not the Taste
When you first introduce a food, children might like to touch it or smell it before trying to eat it. They might need repeated exposure to particular foods before they are confident enough to take a bite. Focus on each food’s color, shape, smell, and texture and less about its taste. Serve new foods with ones your child already enjoys can help them integrate them easier.
4. Don’t Cook 2 Dinners
It can be tempting, but preparing a separate meal for your picky eater after they reject the meal for the rest of the family could promote picky eating. If your child doesn’t want to eat what you have cooked, encourage them to stay at the table regardless until everyone else is finished.
5. Make Healthy Food More Fun
Raw broccoli? Not fun. Raw broccoli with low-fat ranch? Very fun. Presentation is key. We all–children especially–eat with our eyes. Cutting bright colored fruits and vegetables into shapes and serving them with low-calorie dips and sauces makes kids think they are having a treat and not something that’s good for them.
6. Get Your Child Involved
Let your child choose fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods while you’re at the grocery store and ask them to help rinse and put them away when you get back home. Seeing all of the healthy options at the grocery store may help them find a new food that they want to try.
7. Walk the Walk and Talk the Talk
Children are sponges that soak up everything they see us say and do. When you’re telling them to eat healthy foods, you need to eat them too. Seeing mom and dad enjoying a big salad or a side of vegetables may encourage them to want to like them too.
8. Minimize Distractions
In order to keep your child focused on what’s on their plate, don’t let them watch TV or play with electronics during meals. Watching too much TV in general can work against you as commercials are notorious for making kids crave sugary, processed foods.
9. Dessert is Not a Reward
When you withhold dessert, children can deduce that dessert is the best food and inspire more cravings. Choose one or two nights to serve traditional desserts and offer fruit, yogurt, and other healthy options if your child asks otherwise.
Recipes Even Picky Kids Will Love
Blogger and Cookbook author Laura Fuentes has been sharing fresh and simple meals with parents since 2011 on her website MOMables. She put together a list of nutritious snacks and meals even picky eaters will enjoy. Here are 3 of our favorites:
- Ham, Egg, and Cheese Breakfast Pizza: Packed with protein and easy to sneak in veggies, this pizza is a great way to introduce the texture of eggs in a kid-friendly way.
- Cheesy Beef Goulash: This one-skillet meal is easy, delicious, and less than 267 calories and 9 grams of fat per serving despite the fact that it consists of baked pasta, beef, seasoned tomato sauce, and melted cheese.
- Healthy Blondies: A sweet and salty dessert that’s made without gluten, dairy, and eggs. This treat has minimally added sugar and is less than 160 calories per serving.
Offering your child a multivitamin can help provide essential nutrients and minerals like iron, vitamin D, and calcium that they might not get from their diet. Gummy and chewable vitamins can make children feel like they are getting a special treat.
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