This article was previously published on Atrium Health's Daily Dose.
If it's not in the shape of a dinosaur or a prepackaged sweet treat, some kids won't touch it. But have you investigated why? Here's a guide for parents ofpicky eaters.
Some kids look forward to mealtime, asking 10 times if dinner is ready yet. Other kids try everything in their power to avoid eating unless it's a snack. Let's admit – many of those snacks are prepackaged and not the most nutritious.
You might find yourself in a recipe rut, preparing the same five meals for your child week after week. This can create a vicious cycle, and when you're out and about and one of those few meals isn't readily available, you might be stuck with a hungry or upset little one.
Dr. Shelley Houston, a pediatrician at Atrium Health Levine Children's Suburban Pediatrics and physician at Levine Children's Healthy Futures, says, "Very small changes in behaviors around eating or mealtimes can create significant long-term outcomes in nutrition through childhood." Dr. Joey Skelton, a pediatric obesity medicine specialist with Brenner FIT® at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist Brenner Children's Hospital, agrees, "Focus on how your family eats first, which will make changes in what you eat much easier."
Here are their tips to opening your picky eater's eyes (and mouth) to healthy choices by changing their mindset with a few new behaviors.
Start at Birth
There's a lot to say about the benefits of early intervention in many aspects of life, including nutrition. "If a child has eaten a variety of fruits, veggies and proteins from birth, they're likely to continue that same trend as they age," says Houston.
As soon as your pediatrician gives you the green light for purees and even solids, don't shy away from brightly colored foods and unique textures. This exposure is building a healthy palette – and when they're a toddler with strong opinions, you'll thank yourself for starting early.
Skelton reminds parents, "Children will learn to eat from you, so keep serving them the foods you would like them to eat, and they will learn to eat them. Pickiness is not something people are born with."
Remember the developmental benefits of a diverse diet. Everything from eyesight to fine motor skills can be impacted by what your child eats in those first few critical years.
Make Them Sous-chef
Getting your kids involved in meal preparation and cooking is a fun, easy way to open their mind up to trying new, nutritional foods.
"Children are often afraid to try new things and something they haven't seen before," says Houston. "Having their hands actually touch food and create something out of it to provide for their family can give them that confidence boost they need at the dinner table."
Research has proven the more children are involved with preparing food, the more likely they are to try it and eat it regularly. "I've converted more kids to eating Brussels sprouts than anything else just by getting them to roast them in the oven with me," says Skelton.
Exposure and pride can sway them into trying those roasted carrots they helped prep. The memories you create in your kitchen together along the way are a bonus.
Routine Makes Perfect
Sitting down to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at the same times every day create a routine that kids can anticipate and predict. This structure is comforting for kids.
Don't be a 'short order cook.' Eating the same meal together at one table is also a habit that can encourage the pickiest of eaters to eat the broccoli they see mom, dad, sister or brother eating off their plate.
"Trying new things isn't as scary in the company of others – that goes for kids and adults," says Houston. "It's human nature."
Also, the more children and parents eat together as a family, the healthier children eat and the better they do in school!
Try, Try Again
Research shows familiarity with food increases a child's chances of experimenting with it, meaning, "If you put a small amount on your kid's plate every day or often, they're more likely to try it," says Houston.
Don't get discouraged when on the first, second or even third try they don't even touch it. They might reach for it on the fourth and play with it on the fifth. Soon enough they'll pick it up and maybe lick it.
Be patient. "It just takes time," Houston says. "The 20th time they see it on their plate might be the time they decide to eat it."
Skelton also recommends serving new foods with ones they are familiar with. "It's an old chef's trick to serve an unfamiliar food with a familiar one. That makes it more approachable, and overtime, they will feel comfortable with it and try it." But don't pressure them to try it – that can actually have the opposite effect.
Your goal is to provide your child with the nutrition they need to grow and develop, including vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, protein and fat. The easiest way to achieve a balanced diet is with a variety of foods – fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy and protein.
Children need different amounts of specific nutrients at different ages, so be sure to follow up with your pediatrician with any questions.