We’ve recently just overcome the “picky eater” stage at our house, and I’ve also been counseling a number of parents about how to add variety to their child’s diet. Here’s a typical scenario I often hear about:
“My child used to be such a great eater. She’d eat anything and everything we gave her. Now, we rotate between a handful of foods, and often end up making something just for her to ensure that she’s eaten something. I feel like a short order cook!”
Children often start out as enthusiastic eaters as young toddlers, but become more selective as they get older. It may be a texture issue (cooked, but not raw), or a true dislike of food. My oldest daughter was able to detect pureed cauliflower in a sheppard’s pie topping, proof that she really didn’t like the taste of cauliflower! Whatever the reason, it’s important not to let mealtimes become a battle ground. Try not to use food as currency, and avoid power struggles at the table. Mealtimes should be a positive experience for everyone!
Most young children go through “food jags”. They will really, really like a food (ie. peanut butter and jam sandwiches) for a time, shunning all other foods. Not to worry – this is normal toddler behaviour! Kids need the freedom to make their own choices (within reason) and choosing what to eat is part of that. Use the opportunity to talk about healthy food choices, and do your best without engaging them in a power struggle. And, most importantly, lead by example. Even if they don’t eat their vegetables, Mom and Dad should. They’ll get the message, eventually.
In the meantime, what to do? Some parents like to “sneak” foods like pureed veggies into sauces, soups, etc. I don’t think that’s a bad idea, but rarely is it necessary in the long-term. Most kids change their food preferences (and dislikes) quite frequently, so there’s isn’t much risk of developing a serious nutrient deficiency. But, your ND, MD, or dietitian can help you decide what your child needs in terms nutritional requirements.
Here are a few suggestions for increasing your child’s food repertoire:
1. Establish healthy boundaries. I often quote Ellyn Satter’s division of responsibility: “It’s your job as the parent to decide what, where and when your child eats and the toddler is in charge of whether and how much he or she eats.”
2. Involve your child in food preparation. Kids love to participate and be included. My kids are much more likely to try something they’ve had a hand in preparing. In fact, salad is one of my oldest daughter’s favourite meals now that she helps me put it together!
3. Let your child pick out a new fruit or vegetable while grocery shopping. Try to take the fear out of new foods by making it fun! Ask them to pick the most brightly coloured vegetable, or the funniest looking fruit!
4. If your child shuns vegetables, try growing them in the garden! Tomatoes, cucumber and lettuce are easy to grow and will amaze young gardeners.
5. Honour true dislikes. Believe them if they say they don’t like something, and find ways to work around it. But, don’t become a short order cook!
6. Keep trying. It may take several tries before your child truly likes a new food. Set some ground rules around trying new foods. We encourage “3 bites” instead of one bite as it ensures they really taste the new food!
7. Make it a game! Which vegetable is the crunchiest? Which is the most colourful? Can you taste the difference between red and green pepper? New experiences can be unfamiliar, and bringing fun to the table is a great way to “break the ice”.
Want more info? Have a listen to my chat with Dr. Sarah Hardy here: Parenting our Picky Eaters: Navigating Motherhood with Confidence Episode 9.
Need more information? We’re here to help. We can work together to make mealtimes pleasant for everyone! My “Picky Eater Prevention Plan” guides parents and children towards a happy and healthy relationship with food
Dr. Jenn RD ND maintains a family-centered Naturopathic and Nutrition practice in Dartmouth, NS. and enjoys working with people of all ages. As a non-diet dietitian, she uses the principles of Intuitive Eating to help nurture a healthy relationship with food and health.