Children’s nutrition: 20 tips for picky eaters
Is your child a picky eater? Use these practical tips to avoid mealtime battles.
By Mayo Clinic staff
Your preschooler has refused to eat anything other than peanut butter sandwiches for the past two days, and your toddler would rather play than eat anything at all. Sound familiar?
If children’s nutrition is a sore topic in your household, you’re not alone. Many parents are distressed by what their children eat — or don’t eat. However, most kids get plenty of variety and nutrition in their diets over the course of a week. Until your child’s food preferences mature, prevent mealtime battles one bite at a time.
1. Respect your child’s hunger — or lack thereof. Young children tend to eat only when they’re hungry. If your child isn’t hungry, don’t force a meal or snack.
2. Stay calm. If your child senses that you’re unhappy with his or her eating habits, it may become a battle of wills. Threats and punishments only reinforce the power struggle.
3. Keep an eye on the clock. Nix juice and snacks for at least one hour before meals. If your child comes to the table hungry, he or she may be more motivated to eat.
4. Don’t expect too much. After age 2, slower growth often reduces a child’s appetite. A few bites may be all it takes for your child to feel full.
5. Limit liquid calories. Low-fat or fat-free dairy products and 100 percent fruit juice can be important parts of a healthy diet — but if your child fills up on milk or juice, he or she may have no room for meals or snacks.
6. Start small. Offer several foods in small portions. Let your child choose what he or she eats.
7. Boycott the clean plate club. Don’t force your child to clean his or her plate. This may only ignite — or reinforce — a power struggle over food. Instead, allow your child to stop eating when he or she is full.
8. Leave taste out of it. Talk about a food’s color, shape, aroma and texture — not whether it tastes good.
9. Be patient with new foods. Young children often touch or smell new foods, and may even put tiny bits in their mouths and then take them back out again. Your child may need repeated exposure to a new food before he or she takes the first bite.
10. Eat breakfast for dinner. Who says cereal or pancakes are only for breakfast? The distinction between breakfast, lunch and dinner foods may be lost on your child.
11. Make it fun. Serve broccoli and other veggies with a favorite dip or sauce. Cut foods into various shapes with cookie cutters.
12. Recruit your child’s help. At the grocery store, ask your child to help you select fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods. Don’t buy anything that you don’t want your child to eat. At home, encourage your child to help you rinse veggies, stir batter or set the table.
13. Set a good example. If you eat a variety of healthy foods, your child is more likely to follow suit.
14. Be sneaky. Add chopped broccoli or green peppers to spaghetti sauce, top cereal with fruit slices, or mix grated zucchini and carrots into casseroles and soups.
15. Keep it separate. If your child isn’t a fan of various ingredients thrown together, you might “unmix” the food. Place sandwich fixings outside the bread, or serve the ingredients of a salad, casserole or stir-fry separately.
16. Stick to the routine. Serve meals and snacks at about the same times every day. If the kitchen is closed at other times, your child may be more likely to eat what’s served for meals and snacks.
17. Minimize distractions. Turn off the television during meals, and don’t allow books or toys at the table.
18. Don’t offer dessert as a reward. Withholding dessert sends the message that dessert is the best food, which may only increase your child’s desire for sweets. You might select one or two nights a week as dessert nights, and skip dessert the rest of the week. Or redefine dessert as fruit, yogurt or other healthy choices.
19. Expect some food preferences to stick. As kids mature, they tend to become less picky about food. Still, everyone has food preferences. Don’t expect your child to like everything.
20. Know when to seek help. If your child is energetic and growing, he or she is probably doing fine. Consult your child’s doctor if you’re concerned that picky eating is compromising your child’s growth and development or if certain foods seem to make your child ill.
Your child’s eating habits won’t likely change overnight. But the small steps you take each day can help promote a lifetime of healthy eating