At one time or another, most parents face the challenge of having a child who refuses or disdains certain foods. This can be highly frustrating for parents, cause stress at mealtimes, and result in children missing out on nutritional benefits. Introducing new foods can be daunting for parents of picky eaters. Learn what’s normal, strategies to help your child, and when you may want to seek additional support.
Be patient and reintroduce foods that didn’t work before
Children don’t always like foods the first time they’re introduced. Don’t be afraid to try something again. On the other hand, if a child clearly doesn’t like something, don’t force it. If he/she doesn’t like fish, you can offer vegetables and other side dishes with that meal instead.
Be aware of specific food sensitivities and anxiety
Sometimes children’s issues with food are tied to something other than taste. Some may experience specific sensory issues, such as not liking foods that are too cold or too crunchy. Others might not like food that touches other food on a plate. Picky eating can also be a way for children to feel in control and manage anxiety.
If your child’s picky eating is preventing them from getting the nutrition they need, schedule a consultation with our Clinical Dietician, Niki Philippa, RD, PhD. Niki specializes in family nutrition and has worked as a private practice dietitian for 20 years as well as in collaboration with endocrinologists, general practitioners, pediatricians, and behavioral therapists.
Serve calcium-rich foods
Some children don’t like milk or dairy products and others may experience lactose or other dairy intolerance or allergy. Yet all children and adolescents need calcium to support bone growth. Niki Philippa, RD, PhD suggests additional non-dairy sources of calcium to help children build strong bones while engaging in healthy eating habits.
Eat meals as a family and try to make them fun
Studies show that kids who eat together with their families eat more fruits and vegetables, and have lower rates of adult obesity and alcoholism, better grades, and better emotional wellbeing. Don’t be afraid to mix things up to make mealtime fun. Try having breakfast for dinner or homemade pizza night.
Involve kids in food choices and cooking
“If kids are involved, they’re more interested in the outcome,” says Clinical Nutritionist Barbara Sobel, MS, CNS, LDN. “Involve them in choosing foods, helping with recipe choices, and cooking.” Point out different healthy food options in a store and let kids choose between them. If you patronize farmers markets, have your child talk to the farmer about the food. Enlist help in the kitchen–younger children can tear lettuce; older children can chop ingredients. Ask your kids for recipe ideas and have them determine one meal each week. Serve some meals family-style, during which kids can make their own salads or tacos, choosing from the ingredients you offer. “Kids like to be involved in the kitchen and in the family,” says Barbara.
Focus on real food, nutrients, and opportunities to expand your child’s palette
“From the beginning, kids should eat what you eat, as opposed to ‘kids’ meals’”, Barbara says. Babies can eat things like avocados, bananas, and butternut squash. You can add vegetables to meals by cooking with vegetable stocks and broths, or adding pureed vegetables into a spaghetti sauce. If your child likes a certain food, like chili, consider experimenting by adding mushrooms, or another food your child wouldn’t eat otherwise. Or add cut vegetables into stir-fried rice. “Smoothies are a great way to introduce new foods,” says Barbara. Vegetables like spinach or zucchini can be easily be added to blueberry smoothies, without changing the flavor too much. If you need tips for adding vegetables and nutrients to foods your kids already love, check out the cookbook Hidden Veggies.
Help kids connect to their bodies
Many kids naturally honor their fullness and their food needs. If yours doesn’t, you can teach him/her to eat slowly and pay more attention to their hunger and eating. “It takes 20 minutes to feel full,” Barbara says, “so you’ll want to set up a home environment that encourages slow eating.” If a child seems to be eating for reasons other than hunger, you can help them explore this by asking, “Where in the body do you feel hunger?” and by talking about what is enough.
Have a food plan
Families are busy. To help take mealtime stress off everyone, you might benefit from planning ahead. Perhaps do some batch cooking on the weekends and freeze things like pasta, stew, soup or stir-fries, for busier days. Some people benefit from having a weekly routine, such as Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, and perhaps a fish, chicken or vegetarian night. If you need further help, try enlisting a meal planning app, or grocery delivery.
The Center for Children and Youth can help you establish healthy family routines, plan meals at home, and support the picky eater in your family. Learn more about parent consultations or call 1-888-927-0839 to meet with our Clinical Dietician Niki Philippa, RD, PhD or another member of our professional staff.