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How to End the 'Picky Eater' Battle

For countless parents, food-related issues rank at the top of the daily list of challenges. When doing parent presentations, the topic of picky eating habits of young children is often cited.

It is not uncommon for toddlers to turn up their nose at certain foods, particularly when the food is first presented. To prematurely assume that the toddler does not like the food and subsequently elect to no longer present it to him/her is nothing short of absurd. Toddlers and young children should not be allowed to dictate what they will or will not eat. To permit them to do so can easily lay a foundation for future unhealthy food related issues to surface.

The fact that a child (or adult) does not like the taste of a given food during a certain period in his or her life doesn’t mean they will always have a distaste for it. The brain can be retrained to like certain tastes by simply eating them more frequently. Likewise, one’s taste can be acclimated to start disliking certain foods. For example, people who have cut out soda from their diets may find after a time that the drink they used to enjoy now taste sickeningly sweet.

It is worth noting that concerns regarding children’s eating habits can be rooted in family eating habits. Children, particularly young children, tend to want whatever they see their parents eating. If parents engage in unhealthy eating habits, expecting their children to eat differently will likely be met with resistance.

Unhealthy eating habits tend to ease their way into daily life over time. Parents may deceive themselves into believing that their child is too young to be paying attention to their (adult) eating habits, telling themselves that they will develop more healthy habits when they sense their child is becoming more discerning. Little do they realize that children learn what they observe, day by day. By the time parents recognize the problem for what it is, the roots of resistance are already embedded.

Changing course begins with a determined commitment. Below is a list of suggested steps for improving your child’s eating habits:

1. We are what we eat. Review your own eating habits – what you do vs. what you expect of your children.

2. Take an inventory of the food items in your cabinets and refrigerator. Purge items, particular snacks/drinks that are high in sugar (sugar is a major culprit in the American diet for both adults and children).

3. Get your own eating habits in order. Children learn what they live. Make sure your eating habits reflect what you want to see in your children.

4. Create a chart of healthy foods (fruits, vegetables, grains) including foods that your children like and those they refuse to eat (foods for which you would like them to become acclimated). For little ones, cutting out pictures of foods from magazines to put on the chart can be helpful. Place stars next to the healthy foods that your children like. Let them know that the goal is to add stars to other foods on the list.

5. If your children are heavily resistant to food changes, try the “no thank you bite.” It can take between 10 and 15 bites of one type of food before a child accepts/likes it. Requiring each child to take one bite before allowing him/her to refuse an item adds to the count (placing tally marks on a chart for each attempt encourages active participation). Remember that even when children respond negatively, progress is being made simply by exposing them to new foods and flavors.

6. Be patient – sustainable change takes time.

7. Do not allow young children to dictate when/what they eat. Three meals a day at set times works best. Growing children may need a mid-morning and/or afternoon snack that you choose (raw vegetables, exotic fruits, and nuts make great snacks). Giving older children a choice between two items can help with buy-in.

8. Even after little ones learn to open the door independently, make visiting the refrigerator without permission off limits.

9. Do not allow children to get food/drinks from cabinets or the refrigerator at will.

10. Resolve to be proactive, not reactive. Whenever possible, include your child(ren) in food preparation (stirring, collecting and/or adding ingredients, etc.). Creating a recipe box with simple, child friendly, go-to recipes is another way to get children actively involved in the cause!

Americans have succumbed to a dietary pattern of fast-food hamburgers, French fries, and sugary drinks; a pattern that has contributed to an array of physical problems. It is never too late to change course. Parents owe it to their children to teach and model the importance of eating a healthy balanced diet, a win-win proposition!

© Sharon Knapp Lamberth, May 2, 2021


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