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Feeding the Fussy: Tips for Dealing with Picky Eaters

written by Dr. Jennie Gary

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Oh, hi. I’m Doctor Jennie, and welcome to Kid’s Corner.

Do you have a picky eater?

At age two or three, children already start to like certain foods and dislike other foods. There may be a lot of variation in how hungry they are for different meals each day or even in the amount of food they intake from one day to the next. Don’t expect your child to eat the same amount of food at every meal and snack each day. With toddlers, you can trust them to eat the right amount of each meal as long as you’re providing them with a healthy plate.

As the parent, you decide what, when, and where your child eats, and your child decides how much to eat.

As you introduce your child to a variety of new foods, it helps encourage an acceptance of different textures and flavors.

This exploration of food helps lead to a well-balanced and varied diet.

So, how can you help improve your child’s picky eating?

First, encourage healthy choices. Offer plenty of vegetables and fruits every day. Aim for five different servings of fruits and vegetables daily, or try to keep half of their child-sized plate filled with fruits and vegetables each time they eat.

Buy healthy snacks that your child likes and keep them within an easy reach.

Remember, snacks can also be fruits or vegetables. If your child only likes a couple types of fruits or vegetables, that’s okay. It’s okay to offer the same vegetables or fruits every day while you work on continuing to expose them to new options.

I often have parents come into my office telling me that their child won’t touch a single vegetable, but when I actually ask their child directly if they like any vegetables, they usually can name at least one or two that they like. Usually, it’s corn or cucumbers.

So I tell the parent, start with that one vegetable they know they like on a daily basis, and continue to build from there.

Be a good role model. Let your child see you eat the same healthy foods that you want your child to eat. To do this, I encourage you to eat together as a family whenever it’s possible. Try to get in at least one meal a day together. And keep your family meals pleasant and positive.

Children are much more likely to try a new food if they just see you eating it yourself. And this method is a lot more effective than verbally asking your child to try something new.

You also want to try to make a healthy routine for your child. Start by making a regular snack and meal schedule. Most children do well with three meals and about two snacks a day. Find at least one healthy food from each group of food that your child likes, and try to make sure that food is available most of the time.

Another good tip is to have at least one safe food that you know your child likes a lot, one okay or they only eat at some time food on the plate, and occasionally have a small portion of a new food or something they’re less comfortable with on the plate.

Be sure your child eats a healthy breakfast every day. If you’re in a hurry, try wheat toast with peanut butter or avocado, low-sugar yogurt with fruit, or oatmeal.

It’s also important to encourage your child to drink water.

Avoid fast food in your routine. If you have to eat out sometimes, that’s okay. But try your best to find quick options that include whole grains, vegetables, and lean or grilled proteins instead of fried foods.

Next, try to prevent problems with eating. Be patient when you’re offering a new food to your child. As pediatricians, we know it can take multiple exposures to the same exact food before a child will even try it or eventually like it. So just because your child didn’t even touch the broccoli on the plate last week doesn’t mean you shouldn’t offer it again the next week if you’re already cooking it.

For young toddlers, even just touching or tasting the food should be counted as a win in your book. Praise your child for trying new foods. Try different ways of serving the food. Some children may prefer the same vegetable raw, steamed, or grilled. Some kids even enjoy dips on the side.

Have fun. Use funny or silly names for foods. For younger children, you can call broccoli little trees. Or I like to use cookie cutters to cut foods into more appealing shapes that you know your child will like.

Try not to be too forceful with your child. Avoid making comments like clean your plate or just take one more bite. This can actually set up an unhealthy relationship with food and teaches children to ignore their fullness cues.

Along the same mind, don’t use a dessert as a reward for finishing their plate. While it’s best to limit sweets in general, if you’re going to occasionally offer them, it’s actually better to serve a small portion with their meal. This helps prevent dessert being placed way up on a pedestal.

Likewise, don’t use food as a reward for good behavior. Instead for rewards, you can use stickers, small prizes, toys, or other activity incentives, like letting your child choose what game to play or which park they want to go to.

Finally, let’s talk about why it’s so important for kids to have a balanced diet.

A balanced diet provides nutrients to fuel your child’s body. They give your child the energy it needs to keep their brain active and their muscles working. And they also help to build and strengthen bones, muscles, and other body tissues. For a balanced diet, offer your child a variety of foods every day.

Let’s talk about some of the main food groups you want to include.

Grains. Try to choose whole grain products like oatmeal, brown rice, or wheat pasta, for at least half of your child’s grain servings, instead of white flour grains, like white rice or flour tortilla.

Be sure to include a wide variety of colors from dark green vegetables broccoli and spinach to orange vegetables like carrots and sweet potatoes.

You can talk to your child about how eating all the colors of the rainbow will help their body grow big and strong and make their brains super smart.

Fruits. Again, try to offer a variety of colors or when possible choose in-season fruits.

Dairy products like yogurt, milk, and eggs. And proteins like chicken, fish, lean meat, beans, nuts, or nut butters.

I know it can be hard to change eating habits. Oftentimes, making your child’s diet healthier might also mean making improvements to your higher household’s eating habits, but try not to feel too overwhelmed.

Wait until it’s a good time for you and your family and then start by making small changes one at a time and gradually.

If you do decide to make a change, that’s great. Your doctor can give you plenty of more information to help support you. So try some of these tips at home so that you know your child can have a more balanced, healthy diet.

Thanks for watching Kid’s Corner. I’m Doctor Jennie, and I’ll see you next time.

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