Editor’s Note: These strategies are ideal for your own children as well as to help your patients who have picky eaters at home.
IT’S SAFE TO SAY THAT NO ONE WANTS a picky eater in their home, so why does it frustrate so many parents? With so many fast and convenient food options, it can be easy to get stuck in a rut – for all of us, let alone our wee ones.
The exciting news is that there is a lot you can do as a parent to positively impact your child’s eating habits.
It’s important to know that developing your palate is something that starts very early in life and the more flavours one is exposed to, the more evolved the palate. It has even been found that the foods you eat while pregnant influence your child’s future food habits – another reason for you to eat a varied and healthful diet.
Use these nutrition guidelines to help your child develop a healthy food palate.
Variety is the spice of life. An effective way to develop your child’s palate is to try new foods regularly. We tend to lack variety in our diets, which limits our willingness to try new things and often leads to food sensitivities.
- Try different milk sources, such as goat, almond, organic soy, oat, flaxseed, rice and coconut.
- Rotate between vegetarian and animal sources of protein such as fish, chicken, turkey, beef, lentils, chickpeas and black beans.
- Mix and match your fruits and vegetables in your puree or even on your plate. It’s amazing the new flavours you can come up with.
- Try different grains. We depend too much on wheat as our primary grain and with its mass production, it is not as nutrient-rich as it once was. Consider quinoa, buckwheat, millet, amaranth, oats and rice as alternatives. Unfamiliar with some of these?
Explore new taste sensations along with your wee ones. A great way for you to ease into this is by starting with products from companies like Baby Gourmet. They do an excellent job of using different fruit and vegetable combinations and a variety of protein sources. Try their combinations first and be inspired to create your own.
- Pack a flavour punch! As adults, how often do we eat plain chicken or bland veggies? Most of us enjoy the experience of full flavours in our mouths. A great way to diversify your child’s taste buds is to include herbs and spices with their meals or puree blends.
People tend to stick to bland food introduction, but there is no logical reason for this. It is important to expose your child early to new and different taste flavours. A simple way of doing this is to introduce spices one by one, just as you do with fruits and vegetables, and eventually you will have expanded your child’s flavour combinations beyond what you once thought imaginable.
- Let sweetness shine in their personality, not on their plate. Sweets, treats and overly processed convenience foods should not make their way onto a child’s plate. I have so many parents say to me, “My child won’t eat that, he only likes Kraft Dinner”… or cookies, or Cheerios, whatever it may be.
Well, let’s take a step back for a minute and ask – how did they even get these foods?
If you don’t offer them, they don’t know to crave them. It’s that simple. Do not feed your child food that you do not want them to have or that you don’t want to battle over because they refuse to eat the healthy option. If you truly want to give your child a sweet treat that is packed with benefits, fruit is your best option. Consider cutting it into fun shapes for something special.
- Colour, colour, colour! Abandon the all beige diet — breads, pastas and potatoes, oh my! We lack colour in our diets and I am not talking about the fluorescent stuff. I am talking about fruits and vegetables. Strive for a plate that is full of different colours. More colours mean more nutrients, anti-oxidants and flavours. All the colours of the rainbow allows for variety and assurance that your child is getting all their nutritional needs met through their diet.
Diversifying your child’s diet prepares them and empowers them to perceive trying new foods differently. It can become a fun explorative relationship for them versus a battle between child and parent to try something new.
Starting them off with a variety of flavours and food combinations prepares them for such an experience later in life and your positive attitude influences their perception of healthy food. The harmony of these two important factors will help influence and shape a new relationship with food for the whole family.
How can parents help:
- Have a positive attitude towards healthy food: Children love to do what their parents do that is apparent from very early on, just as they love to play with pots and pans because their parents use them, the same goes for eating. If you love eating healthy food and speak positively about new food experiences this will influence and inspire your child. They will go on that journey with you because they trust you and are just excited to be doing the same thing as the people they love most in the world. Be your child’s nutrition role model.
- Bury own food bias: Perhaps your child’s lack of variety stems from your own. Just because you cannot stand brussels sprouts does not mean you should share that information with them, refer to my last point. Go one step further and let your child see you trying new foods even if you haven’t liked them in the past, it’s good for your health as well.
- Make the food fun: Get them excited about food, make their sandwiches in shapes, make funny faces on your child’s plate with fruits & veggies. Making food fun is a great way to inspire your child to be adventurous and creative.
- Involve your child: With wee ones put them in their high chair and give them a few veggies or pot and a ladle and include them in the making of their food. They just want to be included, so if you have fun in the kitchen so will they and they will positively associate eating healthy to having family fun time. As they get older allow them to help you bake, pack lunches or set the table, they may not do it perfectly, but that’s not the point.
- Avoid “children’s menu”: Its easy when you are out to select foods for your child because it is suggested they these are kid friendly meals. Typically these meals are not the healthiest choices. Focus on the same principles when out with your child, healthy whole, colourful food good and ignore the bland, beige, fatty, salty foods cause they are no good.
- Sit down to dinner. Research shows that children of families that sit down for dinner (with no TV) have better diets, eat more fruits and vegetables, consume less fried food and sodas. Which also means they are also less likely to be obese. It is so important to sit down and reconnect with your family on a daily basis and doing this over a healthy dinner positively associates these memories with nourishing meals.
- Be patiently persistent: Just because your child does not like a food the first few times you offer it to them does not mean that they do not like it. It takes 10-15 different times to introducing a food before they can be sure how they feel about it. Try and offer these foods in different forms to assess possible reasons for rejecting it.
Texture is the number one reason to reject a food, so if you find your child doesn’t like a certain food try to mix up textures and flavours and perhaps the next time they try it they may love it. Stay strong, it is a process.
The Picky Eating Phase… How to deal!
Here are a few things to remember during these challenging times:
- Children go through different growth phases and they are not always going to have a huge appetite, try and allow them to eat when they are hungry and eat until satisfied. Do not force them to eat the same amount daily, their hunger will fluctuate and you need to allow them to learn to listen to their body’s signals.
- Try not to get discouraged by these phases because that is all they are, a phase. If they are having a picky week try and find ways to make food and meal time fun. Stay positive and focus on how you can foster healthy attitudes towards food and meal times.
- Get creative! Look at the things they do like, do they want to eat off your plate, are your foods more enticing? If so, give them the same sized plate or feed them what you are eating, try and find ways that excite them about food. Cut fruit into shapes, let them drink their soup, add fruit into their veggie purees.
- Look at the long game. Dr. Sears stresses that parents should view a balanced diet by assessing a child’s weekly diet as opposed to daily. It sets a more realistic and accurate overview.
- It does not mean you now have a picky eater. Try not to use labels that make are distressing. Healthy living is about the journey not the destination and you will impress yourself with how inventive you can get when given the challenge. I know because I impress myself with my ability to think outside the box when given the opportunity. To be honest, I felt those feeling of panic, “oh great now I have a picky eater”, but I caught myself and I changed my reaction. I knew I could do better and be a good example for my child on how to cope with change. I know you are capable of doing the same.
Here’s to healthy and happy meal times for parents and children alike!