By Cecelia Wilken, Current ASU Nutrition Student
“You’re not leaving that spot until you eat everything on your plate.”
This was a common phrase used by my parents when trying to get my younger brother and me to eat vegetables when we were children. I remember sitting for hours at the dinner table, starting with anger at the peas that had long grown cold on my plate, or sneakily feeding my broccoli to the dog under the table. Unfortunately, picker eating is something that many parents struggle with.
Before I had my own child, I remember dreaming about bountiful and nutritious meals that my daughter would gobble up happily. I would watch other parents struggle to feed their screaming children vegetables at restaurants before caving and handing them a handful of crackers just to keep them content. Of course, my own child would never act in that manner. She would eat everything put in front of her with enthusiasm and appreciation.
Boy, was I wrong.
With a stubborn will, just like her mother, she would sit for hours at the table with a plate full of food, completely untouched. Getting her to try anything new was like pulling teeth and dinner time started to become something I deeply resented. I would cringe at the phrases my parents often used on me echoed from my mouth.
After struggling for some time, I finally decided, enough is enough. I wanted dinnertime to evolve from tears and frustration into something positive and enjoyable for everyone. There must be a better way to do this!
There have been countless books, articles and tips, and tricks for dealing with picky eaters written over the years. But what will work best for you and your family? Here are some things I’ve found that might work for you!
What the experts say!
The sooner the better! Almost all experts agree that the sooner you introduce variety into your child’s diet your success rate of getting them to eat and try new foods will increase as they grow older. Studies have even suggested that a mother’s diet, while still pregnant, can set the stage for infant acceptance of solid foods later in life¹. Amniotic fluid contains components of flavors of meals that the mother has ingested. Mother’s with diets with lots of garlic, curry, and spice have been noted for having amniotic fluid that notably smells like this flavors¹. Since taste and smell as already functional during fetal development, exposure to varied foods while in the womb can help influence acceptance of these types of foods later in the child’s development.
Additionally, the same can be said for breastfeeding as certain flavors of a mother’s diet affect the flavor of breastmilk. An added positive factor for breastfeeding is that breastfed children have a higher rate of maintaining healthy weights throughout their lifetimes¹.
Of course, this is wonderful! But what if you were like me; pregnant with a vicious case of morning sickness that lasted your entire pregnancy and spicy curry, or garlic was absolutely off the table? Or what if you’re a mother who is unable to breastfeed your child? Does that mean your child will be a picky eater?
Not at all. Repeated exposure is the key. Starting your infant off with mashed up peas, carrots, and unsweet vegetables as opposed to sweet fruits like plums, bananas, apples or strawberries can help prevent your child from favoring the sweet stuff later.
The “You don’t have to eat it” approach.
“You don’t have to eat it.”
Uhm, excuse me? “Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense” a book by Ellyn Satter*, deals with picky eating and offers ways to help develop healthy eating habits in children.
To summarize, Satter, a registered dietitian nutritionist and family therapist recommends a “division of responsibility” for meals; the parents decide what to eat, when to eat, and where to eat, while the child decides whether they want to eat and how much they want to eat. Dishes should be served “family style” giving the child the choice to fill their plate from the dishes that are offered. Satter also recommends including at least one thing during mealtime that parents know the child will eat. For example, in my house, my child will always eat rice, so I’ll include rice or a rice dish during dinner. Dessert should be set out as an option during dinner (if it’s going to be an option) and not be used as a persuasion tool.
By saying “You don’t have to eat it.” your child no longer runs dinner time. No more keeping a list in your head about the things they like or dislike, no more fighting at the table, no more having to make 3 separate meals for everyone. They either eat, or they don’t.
Find a copy of the book here. (https://www.amazon.com/Child-Mine-Feeding-Revised-Updated/dp/0923521518).
Bring them into the kitchen!
Something that has worked immensely for my own family to involve my daughter in the preparation of dinner. We work together to prepare and cook our meals. While she is still only 3, she’s been helping me in the kitchen since she should hold utensils in her hand. When she was an infant, I would put her in her high chair, hand her a spoon, and encourage her to stir cut up vegetables while I explained what I was doing to her. As she grew, her tasks evolved. She now helps me by “painting” vegetables to be roasted with olive oil, she stirs together ingredients, places pasta into pots and even has her own kid-friendly “knives” that she uses to help me chop up cooked chicken.
From helping me, she has learned kitchen and utensil safety, to create certain dishes, the importance of handling food safely. She’s far more willing to try new foods if she has helped make it and dinnertime has turned into a bonding experience for both of us.
It has been shown in recent studies that students who engage in farm-to-table and student kitchen programs in their schools are twice as likely to eat fruits and vegetables on their own, make more healthy decisions about food and have positive attitudes about food².
Be consistent and keep to a schedule.
Growing children need the energy to fuel their developing minds and growing bodies. For many children, snack-time plays an essential role in helping them meet their daily nutritional needs. However, sometimes snack-time turns into mealtime and many children end up “grazing” throughout the day. In some instances, this can result in increased body fat percentages and obesity later in life. Grazing prevents children from learning self-regulation and prevents them from developing recognition of body cues like feeling hungry or full³. Snacking throughout the day can cause children to feel less hungry during actual meal-time, resulting in avoiding what is on their plate.
That’s why it is important for parents to develop healthy eating habits early in life. Some tips for developing a healthy eating schedule and habits include:
– Stick to a schedule. Devote certain times of the day to eating. For example, breakfast following by a small snack, lunch, then a snack and then dinner.
– Meals and snacks should be eaten at a designated area. Sitting down to eat at the table, whether for a snack or meal is important for developing mindful eating habits. Snacking or eating meals in front of a screen can result in grazing or distraction and can negatively affect intake.
– Eat meals together. Children often learn from example, so sitting down and eating dinner as a family helps set boundaries and establish self-regulation.
– Don’t let them drink their meals. Staying hydrated is important but constantly filling the sippy cup can result in your child filling up before the meals even begun. Drinks should be given after or during meals and should be avoided a few hours before dinner time to avoid that full feeling.
– Keep trying! Even if your child has pushed away broccoli 20 times, keep offering it! It might take multiple times of exposure before your child will willingly try a dish you’ve offered in the past.
– Be patient. Children are great at testing our patience. It is not uncommon for children to love a dish one day and hate it the next. Having patience and consistency will help your child develop healthy self-regulation.
My toddler is still quite a picky eater, but since I’ve started implementing some of these tips into our daily schedule she now has a much more balanced and varied diet. I no longer resent dinnertime and I’ve ended up having some help in the kitchen.
If you find yourself struggling with a picky eater, remember you are not alone! Please make sure you talk with your pediatrician about your picky eater for additional information and guidance.
*This article is not affiliated with Ellyn Satter in any manner and the author does not claim credit for the book or its contents.
¹ Cooke, L. (2007). The importance of exposure for healthy eating in childhood: a review. Journal Of Human Nutrition And Dietetics, 20(4), 294-301. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-277x.2007.00804.x
²Rauzon, S., Wang, M., Studer, N., & Crawford, P. (2010). AN EVALUATION OF THE SCHOOL LUNCH INITIATIVE. Retrieved from http://www.schoollunchinitiative.org/ downloads/sli_eval_full_report_2010.pdf
³Savage, J., Fisher, J., & Birch, L. (2007). Parental Influence on Eating Behavior: Conception to Adolescence. The Journal Of Law, Medicine & Ethics, 35(1), 22-34. doi: 10.1111/j.1748-720x.2007.00111.x