One of the most common questions I am asked is how to help a picky eater. If you're worried that your child won't get enough nutrients from a limited selection of foods, the good news is that because the American food supply is super-fortified, nutrient deficiencies are rare.
If your child is growing normally according to your pediatrician, you can almost always assume that he or she is well-nourished. With the notable exception of calcium, most nutrient deficiencies are easy to spot ? you would notice poor growth, low energy, slow development, and unhealthy-looking skin and hair. If you notice these symptoms in your picky eater, mention your concerns to your pediatrician. Often a multivitamin supplement can solve the problem and reduce your worry. Kids often grow out of picky eating if it isn't given too much attention, so while you wait, here are some options to try.
1. Eat together as a family and let your children see you try new foods (even if you're not sure you'll like them). Children often identify with a parent's eating style, so if you don't like something, it's not fair to expect your children to eat it. The opposite is also true ? children's tastes are more sensitive than adults, so just because you like something doesn't mean they will.
2. Include your children in writing your shopping list, food shopping, and meal preparation. These can be fun ways to teach kids practical skills, while giving them some say in what foods they see on their plates.
3. Walk away from power struggles. When your terrible two-year old crosses his or her arms and says, "NO!" to food, don't let it rattle you. This is one way kids show independence. Next time, try offering two different foods so that your child has the ability to assert him or herself without resorting to not eating at all.
4. Don't go fat free. Fat in foods carries flavor and it really does improve taste. In reasonable amounts, it doesn't make kids fat, it gives them energy and helps their brains grow. Adding butter or cheese to cooked vegetables and salad dressing to raw ones actually helps their bodies absorb the nutrients.
5. Some kids are naturally suspicious of new things, including foods. If you continue to include unfamiliar items in your regular family meals without forcing your child to try them, he or she may eventually feel more comfortable and willing. Don't get upset if your child eats around the new food ? just encountering it is helpful.
6. Trust your child's sense of hunger and fullness. Children have small stomachs and need to eat smaller amounts and more frequently than adults. Never force your children to finish everything on their plates, because appetites change with growth, and sometimes children really do need less to eat than they did at an earlier stage. Serve them small portions at first and then provide more if they're still hungry. Large amounts on the plate can overwhelm some children and turn them off from trying a new food, especially if they think they'll have to eat it all.
7. Avoid bribing picky eaters with dessert. This just makes dessert seem even better and the other food even worse.
8. Buy and provide nutrient-fortified foods, as well as foods that are naturally higher in nutrients (for example 100% fruit juice instead of fruit punch), so that you can feel confident that when your kids do eat, they are getting bang for their buck.
No one likes to eat everything. Exposure to lots of foods without pressure is the best way to help kids find the nutritious foods that they like best. That's why they come home from a friend's house raving about a dish they won't even consider at home.
Finally, if mealtime has become stressful in your home for any reason, it will be difficult for children to eat appropriately. Changes in eating behavior are sometimes a reflection of stress or anxiety. In these cases, counseling and an overhaul of mealtime may be necessary. Consult your pediatrician for advice or try one of Ellyn Satter's books. A healthy relationship with food is one of the best gifts you can give your child, far more important than the one food that they will or won't eat.
Jessica Setnick is a registered dietitian in Dallas, Texas who travels the world spreading nutrition wisdom. As an accomplished speaker and writer, Jessica's passion is promoting a positive relationship with food and eating as a key component of a healthy and happy life. Find out more or contact Jessica to speak at your event by visiting her website at www.understandingnutrition.com.
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