Chances are you know a kid that's a picky eater. Or at least, you know a parent of one. Even before I had kids, I was fascinated by this classification. Living in Italy for 2 years back in the mid-90s without any bambinos of my own, I was keenly aware that the concept didn't even exist over there, and in the decade of dietitian/motherhood that has followed, I am still interested in whether it was nature or nurture at work. So here's my hunch: it's not nature. Turns out that picky eating is pretty much a distinctly American phenomenon. Did you know that in many languages around the world, the expression "picky eater" doesn't even exist?
Why is this the case? Here's my opinion: many kids are given too many food choices, they are surrounded by food all of the time, and they're often nibbling throughout the day, making true hunger elusive. Talk to any pediatrician these days and you'll usually find a combination of shock and dismay at just how frequently (not to mention what kinds of foods and drinks) we're feeding our kids.
How to best feed your kids is, to put it mildly, a polarizing topic, so I am about to tread cautiously. I know that feeding choices stem from the best of intentions on the part of the parents, often coupled with a bit of anxiety and desperation. I also know that there are special considerations, say in the case of food allergies or an underweight child. But for most American families, I hope that you consider these tips, based on my own experience (as a nutrition professional and a mom), as food for thought when you're deciding how to raise your picky eater. Drop me a line and add to the conversation....
1. Hunger Can Be a Good Thing
I get the sense that many parents are utterly terrified of letting their kids be hungry, as if it's a sign of parental failure and will lead to malnourished children. As a result, our diaper bags, strollers, and the pockets of our minivans are laden down with treats, drinks, and a hodge podge of snacks at all times.
Why is this a problem? A couple reasons: (1) it is likely to increase the odds that your child is consuming too many calories overall, leading to overweight and obesity, (2) if you take the edge off of a child's hunger all the time, it makes it much easier for him to skip meals, or to consume much less during and "hold out" because they know another snack is just around the corner.
I think that kids should arrive to meals a bit hungry-they will likely eat more at the meal if they are hungry! Try it for a week and see what happens-I absolutely notice a difference in my kids (a 2 and 4 year old) dinner plates depending on what time they last ate. If you blunt this with a snack 30-60 minutes before you might be fostering a picky eater.
Of course I am a fan of appropriate, healthy snacking. With kids, their tiny tummies often need to refuel a bit in between meals, and it can add some valuable key nutrients (like calcium, Vitamin C or iron) if the foods choices are good ones. But if you have a picky eater, take a look at your snacking habits, and chances are they might need some tweaking.
2. Serve Real Food, Not "Kids Food"
To raise healthy eaters, serve your kids what YOU are eating at meals and snacks. Simple as that. Research has found that even by age 2 our food preferences are well established-based on what we've been given in the high chair and the stroller. A 2002 Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study tracked the diets of 3,000 babies and found that one-third to one-quarter of 6 month olds do not eat even one serving of fruits or vegetables a day. By 9 months, mashed or fried potatoes are the most commonly consumed vegetable.
By teaching your kids that they eat different foods than you do, it will only be harder and harder for them to make the transition to "grown up foods". Sure, you want to serve them some foods you know they will eat. But you also need to stretch them or they will only like those foods. I'll never forget the words of a Mom at one of my worshops, who admonished the group "Picky kids don't magically turn into wonderful teenage eaters-they turn into picky teenage eaters." So start today.
To be sure, the older your kids are when you start a change at the dinner table, the more entrenched the behaviors and the longer it will take to right the ship-but remember your long term goal-your goal as a parent is not just to have your child's belly filled in the immediacy-you are also trying to raise a good eater-someone who is adventurous, eats a respectable range of food to foster good health and a healthy weight and who can go to a restaurant and order something other than the Mac n' Cheese.
3. Tune OUT Technology
We all accept that we can have basic rules in the playroom ("no hitting!") or the other zones of our day, but for some reason parents today seem worried about setting any sort of guidelines at the dinner table-and the result is a free-for-all. Toddlers have moms chasing them around the living room with a spoonful of food, coaxing them to eat (see tip #1 to resolve), toys and technology litter the table...and now there's something else: I am shocked at how often I am seeing families "eating out" together, with the kids watching portable DVD players at the dinner table while the parents enjoy a peaceful dinner. This isn't family time, this isn't nourishing in any way, this is madness!
It's simple - iPods:off. TV: Off. Cell phone:Off. Toys: Off limits at the table. Sit and eat like a family-talk about your day, the food, whatever's on your mind. Go around the table and have each person say what they appreciate about the day-at the very least this will carry you through until the toddlers are done eating. What kids crave more than anything these days is your time & your attention. Give it to them over food.
Will it take some time? Yes. Will there by struggle? Yes. But is it worth it? Absolutely...your kids' health, their weight, and most importantly, their development as decent eaters all lie in the balance.