Most children go through periods when their food intake is not consistent. Depending on their growth, they may eat more or less than usual, or refuse foods they once loved. Kids may have difficulty with meals because there are few foods they like or will try. For some children, this difficulty with eating can be more than a phase. It can carry on into adolescence and beyond. Fortunately, parents can do a great deal to help kids develop positive attitudes towards food and eating.
If you are not already eating together as a family, start by creating family mealtimes. Even eating just one meal a day together does much more than ensure your family eats well. Regularly scheduled family meals provide the predictability and structure all children need – whether picky eaters or not.
Family mealtimes also offer a chance to teach picky eaters proper manners when dealing with food preferences. Coach children who react to a food with 'yuck' or 'that's gross!' to offer a polite 'no thanks' instead. If they still fuss and turn up their noses, it is time for them to leave the table! If your child tries a food and doesn't like it, show how to politely remove food from the mouth or dispose of it into a napkin without making a scene. Teaching at the family table can help make eating away from home easier for everyone. It can also be an important part of helping children learn to deal with food preferences.
Parents need to control when their kids eat, what foods they have access to, and how often the food is served. Meal and snack times should be set by the parent and followed as closely as possible. It is then up to the child (not the parent!) to decide how much to eat, and even whether to eat at all.
This idea can be hard to put into practice at first. However, it can greatly reduce mealtime struggles. Allowing your child to choose what and how much to eat removes pressure and may make a reluctant eater more confident and willing to try new foods. Regularly scheduled meals and snacks help ensure a child is hungry at mealtime, not full from grazing.
If you want to be sure your child will eat something at mealtime, place at least one preferred food on the table. These can be simple items, such as bread, vegetable sticks, green salad, fresh fruit or milk. Your child may choose only one or two items, and that is fine. Let children serve themselves and be positive. With time, they will learn to be more flexible.
When planning meals, be sure to include foods your children enjoy. You may not think their favourite foods are the most nutritious choices. Still, offering them regularly allows your child to eat and feel like a part of the family.
If they choose not to eat at a meal, establish that they can have something at snack time. There is no negotiating or bribing, and they learn when they can expect to eat. Schedule snacks two to three hours before a meal to make sure children are hungry at mealtime. Offer water between meals and during snacks so that children do not fill up on juice and milk before mealtime.
All children, not just picky eaters, need to experience a new food more than once before they will learn to like it. It may take a child as many as 10 to 15 or more opportunities to try the food before they eat or even taste it. Be patient and do not give up after serving a food once or twice!
A healthy diet needs to include foods from all four food groups in Canada's Food Guide. This can be challenging if your child only likes a few foods, but there are many ways to make it possible!
Vegetables and fruits: Some children will eat fruit but not vegetables, or vice versa. Many fruits and vegetables contain similar nutrients, so just keep offering different choices and colours from both groups.
If your child likes fruit juice, be sure to keep an eye on the amount consumed. Even 100 per cent fruit juice is a high source of calories and can take the edge off a child's appetite. If you choose to include juice in your child's diet, be sure it is 100 per cent fruit juice. Limit the amount – it can be included as one serving of fruit or vegetables (half a cup per day).
Grain products: Even fussy eaters usually find foods in this group that they like to eat. Still, trying to get them to eat healthy, whole grain foods can be a challenge. Provide a variety of grain products during the day. Include whole grains as well as more refined products, and do not worry which ones your child chooses.
Meats and alternatives: Some children have trouble eating meats and alternatives, perhaps because of the taste or texture. Avoid making special meals – your child should eat the same meal that the family eats.
Milk and alternatives: Many kids love milk. However, keep an eye on the amount of milk your child drinks at a meal or snack. It is easy to fill up on milk and have no appetite for other foods! Children two to eight years old need two cups of milk (500 millilitres) over the course of a day. Older children need three to four cups (750 millilitres to one litre) spread out over meals and snacks.
If you want to have dessert with your meals, keep it to one serving. Do not make having dessert depend on how well your child eats. Dessert is simply a part of the meal, not a reward. Try to offer healthier desserts, such as pudding, fruit crisps, cobblers, or stewed, canned or fresh fruit. Home baked cookies, muffins or banana bread made with whole-wheat flour are good choices as well, and make great snacks.
Even junk food has its place. While no food should be off limits, do set limits as to when less nutritious foods are available. Pop and chips may be around on birthdays or movie nights, but not every day. You can serve chips with a meal on occasion as well. Treating junk foods as just another food teaches your child that all foods can fit in a healthy diet.
Hopefully, taking a positive attitude towards your picky eater will create pleasant meals for the whole family.
It also sets your child on the right path to healthy eating. For more information or tips on how to feed your family, visit www.ellynsatter.com or look for the book How to Get Your Kid to Eat, but Not Too Much, by Ellyn Satter.