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The DO's and DON'Ts of raising Healthy Eaters

Updated: Nov 28, 2019

Picky Eating Strategies

All this talk about Quinoa here and Kale Chips there...

What's the use in preaching about the health benefits of such-and-such food and cooking up a nice Salmon with whole grain Rice and Asparagus on the side if your kiddo


I'm talking about "Picky Eating", the leading cause of the an omnipresent 'Chicken Nuggets' and 'Mac n' Cheese' phenomenon at the dinner table.

Does your child rarely try new things? Are mealtimes always a 'fight'? Do you wish you could cook more healthily, but - heck - nobody is gonna eat it anyway? Are you turning into a short-order cook in order to get your little one(s) to eat something.... anything?!

Then you, my dear, might have yourself a Picky Eater on hand.

But don't worry! Picky eating is a common phenomenon in early childhood. Kids are hard-wired to favor the 'sweet' stuff, and being skeptical about trying new things may have protected our ancestors from ingesting harmful substances. In fact, scientists believe our bitter taste evolved as a defense mechanism to detect potentially harmful toxins. So, the first step toward resolving the struggles with your Picky Eater is to acknowledge that it is completely normal, and acquiring new tastes a part of growing up.

Know when your Picky Eater is actually a Problem Feeder

There are, of course, those kids who aren't just skeptical about new food or won't touch green veggies.

So called Problem Feeders often just have a handful of foods they'll eat, or will eat fewer and fewer foods over time. This often results in inadequate caloric intake, weight loss, vitamin and mineral deficiencies and very poor eating habits. The problem here isn't just a rebellious or 'difficult' child. Often, sensory issues, developmental delays, neurological disorders or even negative experiences (such as past allergic reactions) are the root cause.

The most common signs of Problem Feeders are:

  • Eats 20 or fewer different foods

  • Eats fewer and fewer foods over time

  • Doesn't or only gains insufficient weight

  • Gags or vomits when eating new foods

  • Cries persistently at meal times

  • Has multiple food allergies

  • Refuses to eat entire food groups

Problem Feeders most likely require working with a Speech Pathologist, Occupational Therapist, Child Psychologist or Allergist to find the root cause of the problem. If your child shows any one of the signs above, get with your pediatrician to seek a referral to the appropriate specialist. A Dietitian like myself can help you plan a balanced diet for your child.

Picky Eaters, on the other hand, might give you a hard time at meal times, but they usually have at least 25 to 30 foods they eat, gain weight appropriately and, if mom and dad are tactful at mealtimes, will gradually start liking more and more food. Following a few simple strategies, your Picky Eater may just turn into a Healthy Eater!

With that said, here are

The DOs and DON'Ts of raising Healthy Eaters

The DOs

DO be Authoritative (not Authoritarian!). The Authoritative parent sets clear standards and limits (this means you, the mom or dad, decides "What", "When" and "Where" to eat) and is firm about enforcing them. However, the Authoritative parent also allows the child autonomy within those limits (this means the child decides "Whether" and "How much" to eat) and is attentive and responsive to the child's concerns. Studies have shown this to be the most effective parenting style to raise Healthy Eaters.

DO eat meals at the dinner table without distractions such as the TV running in the background or toys on the table. Remember, this goes for your own devices, too! Children observe, even when you think they're not looking. Model good behavior at the dinner table!

DO sit down with your children and eat with them. Family meals are associated with a range of positive outcomes, such as improving the sense of family unity, improving a child's language inquisition, reducing the risk of obesity, better eating habits and more.

DO make meal times predictable, for example, by serving 3 meals and 2 snacks at roughly the same time. This puts structure into your daily routine, also.

DO try healthy dips. Kids - heck, everybody - loves dipping their food in creamy goodness! Tasty and nutritious dips can me made with Greek Yogurt, Hummus, Nut Butters, Guacamole, even Ketchup isn't all bad in small amounts (although Tomato Paste makes a healthier alternative). If you have a Picky Eater at hand, try dips!

DO allow them to use their fingers and hands, if necessary. Yes, I know it seems to contradict our tool-focused, anti-mess society. Apparently, our fingers and hands, who were made for picking, tearing, scooping, grasping, holding and feeling, need to be replaced with knife, spoon and fork. Or do they? It's every child's natural instinct to grab food with their fingers. The sensitive nerve endings detect a food's temperature, size and texture before it reaches the mouth. It's sensory stimulation at its finest and puts the Fun back in Food! If you're at wit's end with your Picky Eater, try Finger Foods. But don't forget the hand-washing!

DO serve new dishes with familiar dishes. I encourage you to gradually introduce new dishes. As Daniel Tiger says "You've got to try new things, because they might taste good!". But don't expect your child to be as enthusiastic about trying it as you are. Children tend to eat what they are familiar with - a natural instinct. After they've seen you eat it, they might just give it a try. To avoid the struggle or leaving your child hungry, pair it with something familiar you know they like.

DO keep it simple. Interestingly (and easier on the cook), kids tend to prefer simple meals with simple ingredients. No need for fancy seasoning, decoration or wild combinations. Broccoli, steamed and with a teaspoon of olive oil works best for my daughter; as soon as it shows up in a fancy casserole, she's skeptical. For very Picky Eaters or Problem Feeders, a deconstructed meal might lead to success!

DO praise them for good behavior. An occasional "Good job on trying the carrots!" or "You did such a great job sitting down at dinner today!" motivates your child and makes for a positive eating experience.

The DON'Ts

DON'T become a short order cook. I'm talking about you poor mommies out there who fix separate dinners for every member of your family. Or you well-meaning mommies who get up to fix PB&J's when your child won't eat what's on the table. And then a cheese sandwich. Then some Apple slices. Maybe a yogurt. With Sprinkles. Don't like that, either? How about a.... NO! Stop it. Trust me, you're not doing your child a favor. Try this instead: "You don't have to eat the Fish if you don't want to. What would you rather try instead - the Sweet Potatoes or Broccoli?".

DON'T force your child to eat. In the words of my husband: "My mom used to make me eat Mushrooms. I'm not eating them things ever again". Yes, forcing kids to eat certain foods may actually lead them to reject them later in life. One study looking at exactly this found that "respondents recalled the episode as involving interpersonal conflict and negative affect, and identified the most aversive aspects of this scenario as lack of control and feelings of helplessness. Furthermore, most respondents (72%) reported that they would not willingly eat the target food today". Forcing children to 'clean their plate' teaches them to ignore their body's signals of fullness and may lead to unhealthy eating habits in the long run. Let them choose Whether and How much to eat.

DON'T use dessert as a reward or punishment. I know it seems to be the easiest way to get some vegetables in that belly. "Eat your carrots and you'll get ice cream for dessert". But it will sabotage your efforts to teach your children healthy eating habits. It teaches them to overeat on foods they see as 'reward', and makes foods high in sugar and fat ever more enticing. Instead, do not tie dessert to whether or how much was eaten of the actual meal. In fact, don't even bother with dessert right after meals. Ice cream makes for a great mid-afternoon snack, served with some fresh fruit.

DON'T allow grazing. Let your kids arrive at the table with a nice appetite. This means, don't allow snacking on food (or sugary drinks!) round the clock. Two to three snacks per day are a good compromise. However, pauses between meals are necessary to empty the stomach and build up an appetite. It will teach your child to listen to their hunger signals, make them willing to try new foods (because everything tastes better when you're a little hungry, right?) and reduce picky eating.

DON'T stress yourself out if your kid hasn't eaten anything for lunch today. Kids go through growth spurts, phases and sometimes just aren't hungry. Remember, it's a good thing your child listens to his 'hunger signals' instead of shoving food in his mouth, simply because it's on the table. If he asks for snacks minutes after the dinner table is cleaned off, simply use authoritative parenting techniques by telling him that "Dinner is now all cleaned up, but you're welcome to have a snack after play time".

Do you have a Picky Eater on hand?

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