Picky eaters can be a parent’s worst nightmare. My mom still tells stories of when my brother was young. He LIVED on cow’s milk from the time he was weaned, until about 3 years old. I am talking no solid food whatsoever. I cannot even imagine all the concern that caused my parents.
The pediatrician reassured them that everything was okay, to hold out until my brother pulled through his nutritional “rut.” My parents undoubtedly wanted their son to be healthy, but there is no way to rationalize with a toddler and explain why healthy eating is so important. My brother eventually developed normal eating habits, but talk about a worrisome two years! But the question remains, at what point do parents need to be worried about their children’s dietary intake? What are the best strategies for dealing with picky eaters? Here are my top tips. Ask for a growth curve from your pediatrician.
Many different growth charts exist (stature-for-age, weight-for-age, weight-for-stature, etc.). The basic goal of a growth curve is to help us understand how your child’s height and weight are progressing as compared to other children that age. A growth curve can also help us assess whether your child is under or overweight. Unlike a standard body mass index (BMI) measurement for adults, the BMI-for-age growth chart in children has a much wider “normal” range. The lower ten percent is considered underweight, and the upper fifteen percent is considered overweight or obese; all of the middle values are considered normal.
More importantly is that your child follows along the same growth curve. For example, if your daughter starts out in the 15th percentile on the BMI-for-age curve, we would still expect her to be close to the 15th percentile at her tenth birthday. Your daughter may always be one of the smaller children in her class, but unless she drops too far below her own growth curve, try not to be overly concerned that poor nutrition is contributing to her petite build.
Offer a variety of foods
When dealing with a picky eater, it is important to offer him a variety of nutritious foods. This is much simpler than you may initially think. At every meal, try to offer a fruit or vegetable, some sort of protein (meat, tofu, cheese, eggs, etc.) and a carbohydrate (bread, pasta, rice, potato, etc.). Put a small amount of each food on your child’s plate so as to not overwhelm him. You may also consider serving fruits and vegetables with a yogurt or hummus dip, cutting food into fun shapes with cookie cutters, or using colorful dinnerware to help your child eat better. When you make dinner creative and playful ather than a chore, your child will likely respond in a positive way.
Keep beverages to a reasonable amount
In hindsight, my parents were probably not encouraging the best eating habits in my brother by giving him milk whenever he wanted it. Children are very good (better than we are!) at listening to their hunger and satiety signals. They tend to eat when they are hungry, and stop when they begin to feel full. Because milk has a good ratio of carbs, fats and proteins, it tends to be pretty filling. We will never know for sure, but I suspect that milk satisfied my brother’s hunger enough, that food was only extra. To avoid this situation with your own child, offer milk (or 100% fruit juice) with meals only, and stick to water in between. This will help him feel hungrier and therefore eat better at mealtime.
Do not give in to tantrums
I am going to be blunt here: fixing a special meal for your child will not solve the problem. In fact, it may exacerbate it. Why would your child want to eat spaghetti squash with meat sauce, when she knows that after a tantrum or two, you’ll give in and fix her favorite dinner of chicken nuggets with mac and cheese? By giving in, you are only reinforcing the power struggle over food. The better option is to make whatever meal you have planned and put some of each food on your child’s plate. Whether or not she eats it is HER decision at this point. She may pick at her food or prod it with her fork, but chances are, she’ll eat something if she’s hungry. Whatever you do, do not force your child to clean her plate. Remember, your child is intuitive to her satiety signals, and making her clean her plate will only encourage overeating when she is older.
Talk about food differently
Though your children may not understand everything you tell them, you still work with them daily to help them learn and grow. We need to do the same when it comes to discussing food. Rather than telling your child he cannot have a food because it is “bad” or “unhealthy,” try classifying food as either “every-day” food or “less-often” food. For example, vegetables are an every-day food, and cookies are a less-often food. As your child gets older, you can start to explain why.
Vegetables are every-day foods because they contain important vitamins and minerals that help our eyes to see, our hearts to beat, etc. Cookies are a less-often food because they contain less nutrients, and more processed sugar than our bodies need. Changing your conversation to focus on health will definitely help your child establish a healthy relationship with food in the long-run, but it may also encourage him to try something new on his plate for the time being.
Consider visiting with a dietitian
Hopefully, you will find some of these tips helpful in dealing with your own picky eater. However, it is important to know that all children are different, and what works for one child may not work for the next. If you need additional strategies or have specific nutrition questions, it may be time to make an appointment with a Registered Dietitian. Dietitians can offer a more comprehensive support, and can help you come up with a personalized nutrition prescription for your child.
A dietitian also can help if your child has sensory issues with food, which is common in children with autism or ADHD, or additional medical conditions, such as diabetes or Celiac Disease. If you feel like your child could benefit, consider giving your local dietitian a call.
About Jordan Lichthardt
Jordan Lichthardt was born and raised here in Los Alamos. After graduating high school, she attended Texas Tech University, where she obtained her Bachelor of Science in Nutritional Sciences. She continued on at TTU and worked to acquire her Registered Dietitian credential, while simultaneously completing her research on the physiological biomarkers of food addiction.
Lichthardt completed her Master’s in Nutritional Sciences in 2017, and moved back home. She is now enjoying life with her husband and dog Oliver and excited to be back in Los Alamos serving her hometown community as a dietitian. Schedule a consult by calling MANNM at 505.661.8900.