By: Dr. Melissa ChoiAs a physician and second-time mom, I thought I had the feeding routine figured out. Daughter #1 ate every pureed food as an infant, and as a toddler, she was feeding herself and eating everything on her plate. Whether I fed her tofu, blueberries, cheese, or goldfish crackers, she ate everything. “I must’ve eaten a variety of foods during my pregnancy and continued that variety once she started solids--that must be why she loves everything!” I thought. Until my second child came along.
Daughter #2 preferred Cheerios and goldfish crackers, along with the occasional berries. But when it came to mealtime, she was hardly ever interested in anything. Plus, she was petite for her age, which, as a mother, made me think I needed to panic and feed her whatever she would eat, even if it was unhealthy snacks and treats.
Fortunately, thanks to our family physician who reassured me Daughter #2 was growing and developing appropriately, I could continue to try new foods with Daughter #2 without worrying about her size. She is now a healthy 8-year-old who has learned to enjoy many more foods. What did we do? There’s no magic formula, but here are some things to keep in mind and try with your picky eaters.
Understand the Perspective of Your Child
Change is hard for all of us, even as adults. Some things, such as crackers, will always taste the same. Whether you eat the first cracker or the sixth cracker from the box, each cracker will taste the same. Healthier food options such as blueberries, for example, are all different. A blueberry can be mushy, firm, sweet, sour, or juicy, just to name a few descriptors. Therefore, it may take a child several bites of a food to get used to the various ways it may taste. You may need to offer a child the same food at least seven or eight separate occasions before he or she gets used to eating a new food.
A Child’s Appetite and Food Tastes Can Fluctuate
I was so surprised the first time one of my children ate 1.5 eggs for breakfast one day and so, thinking she loved eggs, I cooked the same eggs the following day and she wanted nothing to do with them. I then remembered that this is normal. It doesn’t mean she no longer likes eggs. Kids’ appetites and food interests can fluctuate. When counseling parents about their child’s appetite in my clinic office, especially a toddler’s appetite, I remind them to look at how much a child is eating over a week, instead of one day. There may be days your child will eat three servings of broccoli at dinner, and there are other days he doesn’t even want a bite of broccoli. That’s ok, and it doesn’t mean he doesn’t like broccoli. He may just not be hungry at that time.
Resist the Temptation to be a Line Cook
Keep up with your child’s well child visits and be in good communication with her primary care provider. If your child is growing and developing normally, you don’t need to panic if she doesn’t eat everything at every meal. Healthy kids are good regulators of their hunger. If they aren’t interested in what you made for breakfast, they may simply not be hungry enough to eat it. You can always save the food, and if they get hungry mid-morning, offer their breakfast food to them again before going to the pantry to give them a snack.
Don’t have mealtime go longer than 30 minutes. Children are more likely to enjoy mealtime if it is a happy time. If they aren’t interested in the food after 30 minutes, mealtime can be over, and you may save any food they haven’t eaten. You don’t have to throw it away. Instead, simply save it in the refrigerator and offer it again later when they are hungry. Keeping mealtime a happy and enjoyable time will make children look forward to eating the food that is served.
Keep Meal and Snack Times on a Schedule
Children eat when they are hungry. When meals and snacks are served at about the same time every day, your child will learn to expect food to be served and will be more likely to arrive at the table hungry. If your child is hungry during mealtime, she will be more likely to try new foods.
Trying New Foods is Like Working Out a New Muscle
If someone is starting a new workout routine, chances are they won’t like it the first day. They may feel discomfort because it’s new and unfamiliar. For kids trying a new food, the same principle holds. It will taste unfamiliar, and they’ll want to go back to foods they know. But like a workout, the more you try a new food again and again, the more it becomes familiar to your child. At the end of the day, I still don’t like deadlifts, and your child may not like squash. But I know how to do a deadlift after I’ve done it many times, and your child will at least be familiar with the taste and texture of squash the next time it’s served at dinner and are more willing to eat it.
Prepare Vegetables in Different Ways
When I was growing up, vegetables didn’t seem appealing because they were boiled and hardly seasoned. Try preparing vegetables in different ways: There are many ways to serve vegetables:
- Dips: add hummus or other healthy homemade dips for kids to eat with raw vegetables
- Roast Vegetables: You can roast almost any vegetable--carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, squash, etc.--by tossing equally sized vegetable pieces with avocado oil and a little salt. Preheat a convection oven to 375 degrees (or 400 degrees for regular ovens), place vegetables on a parchment paper lined baking sheet, and roast for 20-30 minutes or until done.
- Add different spices to vegetables: For example, when I roast squash, we try different spices such as turmeric and cinnamon, sage and rosemary, and the kids like it with a little cinnamon.
- Add extra vegetables to dishes you already make: You can always add chopped vegetables to soups, sauces, and even smoothies
Involve Your Kids in Making Food Choices
Kids (and adults!) like to be in control. When it comes to food choices, as the parent, you provide the healthy food options, and kids can choose those options. For example, at the dinner table, there may be chicken stew, a salad, and cut-up fruit. Let your child choose which healthy foods he or she wants to try. When you plan your grocery trip, ask your kids what types of fruit and vegetables they’d like to have for snacks. Kids may not like all healthy food options, but good thing there are many choices, so they’ll be certain to find a few favorites.
Eat Together and Minimize Distractions
When eating a meal, try to keep TVs and screens off and away from the table, including parents’ phones. Distractions make it harder for children to be interested in the food that is being served.
Avoid Making Desserts and Treats as a Reward
As parents, sometimes we feel we need to negotiate with our kids. “Take two more bites of the brussel sprouts and you can have dessert.” However, this language may unintentionally teach our child that vegetables are a chore, and not something to be appreciated, and the cookie is the reward.
Give Your Kids Their Favorite Treats on Occasion
In our home and when I’m counseling patients in my office, we always encourage healthy food choices. However, we recognize sometimes kids want a treat, and no food should be off-limits. In fact, sometimes if certain foods are “banned” from the home, children may want to eat it even more. Then, once the child leaves home, he takes reign of this newfound freedom and can often make unhealthy food choices that can lead to unwanted weight gain and other health problems such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. Learning to have balance within their diet and allowing kids to eat desserts, fast food, and chips on occasion will allow them to be more mindful about their food.
In the end, we should remember why we want our picky eaters to enjoy healthy foods. It isn’t simply so they’ll eat what we want them to eat. We all want our children to grow up to be healthy, and as they get older, learn to make healthy responsible choices on their own--including making their own healthy food choices. By instilling some of these habits into our daily routine now, our children will be set up for making their own healthy choices in the future.
Dr. Melissa Choi is a wife, mother of 3 girls, and board certified family medicine and obesity medicine physician. She’s also the founder of The Mom Plate, where she helps busy moms and their families stay healthy without feeling overwhelmed. When she isn’t caring for patients or helping clients, you can find her cooking in her kitchen with her family or on a coffee date with a friend. To learn more about Dr. Melissa, visit her on instagram @themomplate or visit her website themomplate.com to schedule a free discovery call to see how she can help you and your family stay healthy.