Monday, December 6, 2010

Beyond French Fries and Chicken Fingers: How to Handle Your Picky Eater

Do you have a picky eater on your hands? First off, you’re not alone. Picky eating is very common in toddlers and preschoolers, who are discovering and expressing their newfound independence. The good news: it subsides and eventually fades away in most children as they grow. The bad news: you still have to deal with it for now. Below are some questions you may be asking yourself daily (or hourly) as you and your child engage in a battle of wills different challenges during mealtime.

My child won’t eat anything except french fries, ketchup, and chicken fingers. What else can I do???
Number one: Be patient. According to researcher Dr. Shayla Holub of the Healthy Development Project at the University of Texas at Dallas, all children, not just picky eaters,  need to taste a new food 8-15 times before they accept it. And that’s taste it, not just see it. How many times do you normally have your child try a new food before you both give up?

Next, model eating new foods with a good attitude. Ever heard the phrase ‘do as I say, not as I do’? Well, kids do as you do, so make sure that your kiddos see you eating a variety of healthy foods with a good attitude.

I tell my child that if he doesn’t eat everything on his plate, he can’t have dessert. Is this okay?
Did you know that even very young children are able to internally regulate their own calorie intake? In other words, they know when they’re full- you don’t have to make them finish every meal because they’re able to tell on their own whether they need more food or not!

Second, research suggests a certain ‘forbidden fruit’ effect when parents do things like make children finish one part of a meal in order to get dessert. It makes one part of the meal an obstacle, something to ‘get through’ to get to the ‘forbidden fruit,’ or the ‘good part.’ In essence, it’s telling the child, ‘You have to eat this [chicken and broccoli] to get this [delicious ice cream], so there must be something horrible and bad about the chicken and broccoli.’

But really, we want our children to want to eat the chicken and broccoli, right? So what do we do? Encourage a healthy balance and don’t make dessert conditional upon eating the main course. Or, I wonder what the harm would be in serving dessert with the main course...would your child eat it first and then not be hungry? Then serve a much smaller dessert serving.

Should I make an entirely separate meal for my child just because she’s picky?
No. But do involve your child in meal planning- and make it fun! Here are a few ideas for your picky eater:

  • Give her choices for dinner that don’t always include her usual picky favorites. If you have multiple children, let each child choose one dish at each meal.
  • Make it a game- for example, eat a ‘rainbow,’ a ‘flag,’ or anything else you can think of and see how many different colors you can include in your meal (e.g., blueberries=blue, tomatoes=red, rice=brown/white)
  • Eat the alphabet- Celery, cut just right, can be ‘C’s, grapes can be ‘O’s, what else can you think of?
  • Call food fun names- I didn’t think of this one, but try calling broccoli ‘jungle trees’ or oatmeal ‘quick sand’ and letting raisins get ‘caught’

Remember, mealtime with your picky eater can be tough. But with patience, a good attitude, and a little creativity, it can be enjoyable (and nutritious) for both of you!


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