By Nathan Chambers, Recent Arizona State University Nutrition Student
I have an eight-year-old daughter who is a picky eater.
Her mother and I struggle daily with this, especially at dinner time. We got back from a study group one night– it was a little late– and I didn’t feel like doing all the prep work for cooking the chicken my daughter asked for, so I asked her to pick something else.
You know what she picked? Scrambled eggs. For the first 4 years of her life, she ate scrambled eggs at least 3 times a week. Since then it has been, “I don’t like eggs.”
And now, out of the blue, she wants scrambled eggs for dinner.
If you’re like me and have a child who can’t decide what he or she likes to eat, there are some steps you can take to make it easier on yourself and your child:
- Start their nutrition education early.
One study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior this year suggests that picture books can have a positive effect on children’s eating habits and behaviors. It is important to understand that fictional books do need to be evaluated for correctness; the study indicated that there was a correlation between behaviors and what is observed in books, regardless of the quality of the book.
- Respect your child’s appetite
If your child isn’t ready to eat right away, or if she is ready but you aren’t, you shouldn’t force it, either way, says the Mayo Clinic. Pushing your child to eat, or not eat, can reinforce negative meal-time behaviors such as shunning certain foods or overeating.
Young children are self-regulators: they will eat when they need to. It is up to you to provide healthy, delicious, and interesting foods for them to try.
- Don’t reinforce pickiness
This should be obvious, but if your child refuses to eat what you’ve fixed for dinner, don’t prepare a whole separate meal for them. On the flip side of that, if you’re trying to get your child to try a new food, make sure that the other portion of the meal is something that they enjoy.
- Keep to a schedule
Even if your child hasn’t learned how to tell time yet, her biological clock is still ticking away. Try to serve meals at the same time every day. That way the child will be expecting to eat, and if they are mentally prepared for mealtime, they may be more willing to try the broccoli this time around.
Didn’t I just say that children are self-regulators? Yes, young children are! But as they get older, especially if they are picky eaters, they begin to rely on their eating habits and that internal drive becomes less vocal. That is why it is of utmost importance that, as early as possible, you begin teaching your child good eating behaviors.
- Make it interesting
You don’t have to cut all of their food into fascinating shapes (though that may help sometimes), but a little bit of creativity can go a long way. Refer to their food as something interesting, creative, fun names for new or boring dishes. For example, I will refer to my hummus (prepared with peanut butter instead of tahini), as peanut butter dip.
Which brings up another way to keep it interesting: try substituting ingredients in recipes with those you know your child appreciates.
Remember that the goal is to convince your child to eat new, healthy foods. It doesn’t have to (and likely won’t) happen all at once. If you can be patient and encouraging over the long-haul, the end result will be a child who isn’t afraid of the strange green or orange bits on their plates.
Medical News Today (2016). Analyzing Picture Books for Nutritional Education. Retrieved from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/313340.php.
Mayo Clinic (2014). Children’s nutrition: 10 tips for picky eaters. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/childrens-health/in-depth/childrens-health/art-20044948.