Five rules for picky eaters

Being the provider of nutrition for your children is a critical and often frustrating role as a parent. But the reality is that you are probably putting a lot more pressure on yourself than needed. (AP Photo/Mike Derer)

Ok.  Let’s talk about it.  Every parent asks this question, and every parent gets concerned at some point.  What am I talking about?

How to deal with a picky eater. 

For the last year and a half, a pediatrician that I work closely with would pull me aside after seeing patients to discuss his toughest problem patient ... his own daughter.  Emma is a bright, beautiful, three year old who gives her parents so much joy, until mealtime. When Emma would sit down at the dinner table, you never knew what to expect. Some days getting Emma to consume a well balanced meal was easy, other days it was a battle of wills with every bite. 

Being the provider of nutrition for your children is a critical and often frustrating role as a parent. The reality?  You are probably putting a lot more pressure on yourself than I ever would. So I will tell you what I told that pediatrician and every other parent who asks.

Rule #1.  Know your role

As a parent, you have the very best intentions, but actually, you only have three true responsibilities at mealtime. 

  1. Offer a variety of nutritious foods at each meal
  2. Set regular times for meals and snacks
  3. Provide a pleasant, low stress setting for mealtimes

That’s really it.  Structuring mealtimes is essential to promote a normalized cycle of hunger and satiety, and helps children feel confident on deciding how much to eat. Speaking of which ...

Rule #2. Give your child his or her opportunity to decide the rest

The other details including what they choose to eat, how much they eat is up to the child. Making a child clean their plate or forcing new foods leaves a child with a feeling of negative pressures during mealtime. 

Rule #3. Relax!

At mealtimes, never let the kids see you sweat about their choices. I know, it’s easier said than done.  But even if you are concerned that your child hasn’t eaten something green or red in three weeks, it doesn’t mean they never will. Actually, it can take up to 20 exposures to the same food before a child will even have the confidence to take a single bite. So keep serving healthy foods – eventually you’ll reach their tipping point.

Rule #4. Get them curious

Putting a food on a plate is one thing. But letting them see where it came from and how you prepare it can make even the most picky child interested in a new food. Encouraging children to participate in the purchasing and preparation of foods allows a child to become more comfortable with new items. So does letting them help you in the garden, help you gather produce at the pick-your-own fruit or veggie farm or choose the best peaches or green beans at the farmstand

Rule #5. Know that it’s normal

All children (even those of us who became nutrition professionals!) go through phases with foods.  Children may have a set of innate food preferences (salty, sweet, bitter), but many other food preferences will change over time. Most children will eat enough over the weeks and months to grow and develop well. If you have concerns that your child is not growing, ask your health care provider for a closer evaluation, and if a multivitamin is a good choice for your child. 

And what about Emma today? Her parents did everything right and never lost their cool. Just after her third birthday, Emma started to eat like a big girl, trying all sorts of new things. Now, lucky for them, food fights are a thing of the past. 

Beth Wallace, a registered dietitian at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, has more than six years of experience in providing nutrition care for children and adolescents.

Is there a picky eater in your house? How do you handle meal times?