It’s dinnertime. Are you opening a box of macaroni and cheese or smearing peanut butter on bread for your kiddo?
Throw the box in the trash and put the knife down, because it’s time to rehabilitate your picky eater once and for all.
Thinking it will never work? Stay with us.
Do You Really Have a Picky Eater?
“Picky Eating” and food rejection are very common in children, especially in the United States.To be fair, every child and adult has foods that he or she dislikes or outright hates. However, there is a firm difference between “picky eating” and having preferences.
A true “picky eater”, will consume less than 10 different meals at age 4. Let’s talk about what that means. While definitions of “different” differ among health professionals, in general, “different” means that each meal should be fairly unique in taste, texture, and macronutrient composition.
• Chicken nuggets or fish sticks? Essentially the same thing.
• Buttered pasta or macaroni and cheese? Again, way too similar.
• Cheese pizza or grilled cheese? The only difference is tomato sauce.
So what does “different” look like, exactly?
Let’s compare roast chicken and cheese pizza: one is squishy, one is not. One contains a large amount of protein, the other? Not so much. Appearance? Very different. Still not sure if your kiddo qualifies as a picky eater? Ask yourself the following questions:
• Is your child eating primarily one food group to the near exclusion of all others? (This is especially common with carbohydrate-based foods).
• Is your child primarily consuming snacks and/or beverages but won’t eat at meals?
• Is your child willing to eat only bland or sweet foods?
If you answered “yes” to two of these questions, you likely have a picky eater.
On the other hand, if your kiddo is willing to try and regularly consume new foods, is eating a balanced mix of macronutrients, eats foods of different textures and flavors, and is eating readily at meal times rather than snacking consistently, there’s a high likelihood that you have a balanced, healthy eater.
Picky Eater Rehab
If picky eating persists for more than a month? Time for picky eater rehab, stat!
We get it: kids go through phases. And while it’s tempting to attribute picky eating to a phase a child will grow out of, that isn’t always the case: if a child remains in a picky eating phase for more than a month, it’s likely that the behavior will persist without intervention. In many cases, picky eating can increase the risk for obesity either in childhood or later in life, or diminish overall health.
Physiologically, nutritional variety is key in early childhood, and multivitamins do not entirely make up for nutritional gaps. For kiddos with overweight parents (who are more likely to carry obesity-disposing gene variants), research has shown that picky eating may lead to serotonin dysfunction in the brain that increases obesity risk to a greater degree.
The Food Fight
No one likes a food fight of the toddler or adolescent variety. Luckily, a thoughtful, firm approach to balanced eating can banish food fights within a matter of weeks. But first? They’re likely going to happen. We promise, it’s worth it in the scheme of things!
Of course, any reasonable parent desperately wants to avoid the meltdown, and many parents fear that even well-intentioned messages may hurt their child’s self-esteem. However, in the overwhelming majority of cases, a thoughtful and speech-minimal approach to healthy eating will not cause dysfunction or disorder in young children.
With very young children, it’s best to pretend you’re nonplussed by the change, or otherwise negligent. Pretending that you “forgot” to buy peanut butter at the store for a few weeks? Totally fine: a four year old doesn’t need a 45 minute delivery on you stopped the PB&J train.
However, it is helpful to offer small, age-appropriate pieces of nutrition information to help build nutrition knowledge as you go. Once the meltdown stage has passed, you might casually explain that certain foods are a “sometimes” food: foods that are fun to have on occasion or at special events, but not something you’re going to buy every week.
In the meantime? Stay strong! It usually takes a month to get through the woods! Giving in only makes the process harder, so remember: eventually, they will eat what you’ve prepared, learn to enjoy and accept new foods, and be all the better for it!