Picky eating is a typical behavior for many preschoolers. You hear parents say their child will only eat chicken nuggets, spaghetti and peanut butter, despite the parents’ efforts to encourage healthy foods.
Unfortunately, these favorite foods have little nutritional value, but they do have high calorie and fat content.
It’s difficult to continue encouraging healthy eating when your toddler repeatedly turns his head. But we must remember that the lifelong benefits of healthy eating far outweigh the difficulty of getting picky eaters to eat a variety of healthy foods.
If learned early, healthy habits become the norm for children, said Debra Haire-Joshua, a member of the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) Committee on Obesity Prevention Policies for Young Children and professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
“You’re not changing behaviors,” she said. “You don’t have to re-teach someone how to eat appropriately or not overeat – they just learn how to do it right from the start.”
Having a picky eater is like the “terrible twos;” it’s simply another step in the process of growing up and becoming independent.
Many preschoolers are hesitant to try new, healthy foods, and it often takes time for a child to accept a new food. That’s normal. Here are some tips on how to get your preschooler to try new, healthy foods:
• Children don’t always take to new foods quickly. It may take up to a dozen tries for a child to accept a new food. Keep trying!
• Let your child try small portions of new foods that you enjoy. Give him a small taste at first and be patient. When he develops a taste for many types of foods, it’s easier to plan family meals.
• Be a good role model by trying new foods yourself. Describe its taste, texture and smell.
• Offer only one new food at a time. Serve something that you know your child likes along with the new food. Offering too many new foods at one time could be overwhelming.
• Offer new foods at the beginning of a meal when your child is the most hungry.
• Serve food plain if that is important to your preschooler. For example, instead of a macaroni casserole, try meatballs, pasta and a vegetable. To keep the different foods separate, try plates with sections. For some kids, the opposite works and serving a new food mixed in with a familiar item is helpful. The Internet has a lot of information and suggestions on how to “hide” healthy food in your child’s favorites.
One way to get a picky eater to try new, healthy foods is to be creative in the kitchen – tap into your child’s visual needs.
• Cut a food into fun and easy shapes with cookie cutters.
• Encourage your child to help prepare new snacks or sandwiches. For example, make your own trail mixes from dry cereal and dried fruit.
• Have your child make towers out of whole-grain crackers, spell words with pretzel sticks or make funny faces on a plate using different types of fruit.
• Jazz up the taste of vegetables with low-fat dressings or dips. Children love to dip their food. You can give them their own dipping bowl until they learn to not double-dip.
• Let your kids be “produce pickers.” Let them help pick out fruits and veggies at the store; the bright colors can be an effective enticement.
• Offer choices. Rather than ask “Do you want broccoli for dinner?” ask “Which would you like for dinner: broccoli or cauliflower?”
Treating children as “little adults” can encourage them to try new foods. Kids feel good about doing something “grown-up” and are more likely to accept healthy foods that they helped make. Ask your child to help you make dinner, and watch his eyes light up.
A good way to encourage repeated good eating is by naming a food your child helps create, even if the creation isn’t really new. Make a big deal of serving “Dawn’s Salad” or “Peter’s Sweet Potatoes” for dinner.
As children grow, they can perform different tasks in the kitchen and take even greater pride. And let’s be honest – it’s easier to do everything yourself than to have a 4-year-old crack eggs. He might not do kitchen tasks like you would, but it’s best to look at the long-term health result and overlook minor issues and messes on the counter.
While helping, your child will be learning to create his own meal and developing an interest in healthy eating.
It’s important that your child taste his creation to reinforce the positive experience of cooking. All of that mixing, mashing and measuring will make him want to taste what he has made. Keep the time lag between cooking and eating short. Waiting for a gelatin salad to solidify, for example, is difficult for a small child, so save food items with wait time for later years.
Don’t forget to teach your child to wash his hands before and after handling foods and to help clean up the kitchen, since that’s an equal part of cooking. Kids love to play in the water and soap bubbles just make it that much more fun. Pull a chair up to the sink and let your child wash non-breakable dishes.
As a parent or caregiver, you play an important role in helping your child learn about food. Sometimes it takes a great deal of creativity to push your child to healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle, but that’s what every parent wants.
(Richmond County Partnership for Children is a non-profit organization that provides programs to enhance the health, education and quality of life for children birth to age 5 and their families. For more information on Partnership programs, call 910.997.3773 or visit www.richmondsmartstart.org.)
This is is the second in a three-part series about preventing obesity in children.
Martha Vance Brown, Executive Director, Richmond County Partnership for Children, can be reached at (910) 997-3773 ext. 24 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.