• Bowie Matteson

Nutrition Goals for the Picky Eaters in your Life

Expand your child's palate and get them interested in fueling a healthy lifestyle.

Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Blend Images / Getty Images

If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone’s kid was a “picky eater” I’d be rich. I’m here to offer a few suggestions for working through the stubborn dinner-time antics and promoting a long, healthy relationship with the food that loves you back.

There is much to say for starting with a positive environment. Meal time should be a source of relief and enjoyment. This doesn’t necessarily mean baths in rosemary extract or hanging pictures of kale on the wall. It just means introducing food in a more positive light. Lead by example in eating your veggies. Talk about the food you eat. What you liked about it, or what you think it would go well with. Let kids nibble and take part in prepping a meal.

Being more involved with their food can give kids a sense of responsibility and ownership. Getting this sort of “big kid” attention is what a lot of issues with food stems from. i.e. CONTROL.

This power struggle can be what drives parents to the brink of insanity and kids to the brink of malnutrition. There’s two ends to this spectrum. The old “well this is what’s for dinner” try and the “I’ll just cook 3 different meals to keep the peace” approach.

I’m a proponent of the former much more than the latter. But don’t mistake that as a plug for a kitchen dictatorship. Forcing kids to continue to eat something they don’t want to is a shortcut to never eating it again.

It takes an average of 12 exposures to a food to develop a hard opinion on whether it’s something they like.

Being stern with what’s for dinner means trying all of the things on the plate that you have decided to cook. Letting them take a role in deciding what to cook is a great way to make them feel included/value their opinion. This can mean anything from getting involved in meal prep to making a game of eating, or watching food shows on television or the internet.

Didn’t that look good on TV? Let’s try it at home.

That’s a funny looking vegetable. (Looking at you, cauliflower) You want to try it?

But giving them a voice in the kitchen does NOT mean surrendering your own authority as a parent. Making separate meals to cater to your kid’s picky eating only makes things worse: making them MORE picky by rewarding the desire to have a separate meal made.

Think about it. I’m an attention-starved kid looking for a fight for the sake of some facetime with mom and dad. At the table I throw a Level 5 tantrum, meltdown included, to get what I want. That grilled cheese? A total decoy. The icing on my self-centered cake. I take my stroll down victory lane as my parents throw their hands up and head to the stove to make me MY meal.

Have you ever had someone stop what they’re doing to go make you exactly the meal you just asked for? I haven’t. It’s something reserved for kings, dignitaries and other royalty, not your 5 year old. But from their perspective, if it worked once, you bet I’m doing it again next time. You’d be wise to nip that one in the bud before the power goes right to their head.

It’s also important to separate a behavioral issue from a food issue. A tantrum at the table is never because the broccoli was overcooked. Address the behavior separately from the food, otherwise you run the risk of building their relationship with food in a negative environment.

When it comes to food selection, be PERSISTENT. It takes an average of 12 exposures to a food to develop a hard opinion on whether it’s something they like. Saying “I don’t like it” is the biggest cop out there is and most parents are buying in way too early. Remember that control problem? The same persona that rejects any outfit you select for the day is the same motivating factor that makes them brazen enough to push their plate away. But just because they don’t like the clothes YOU picked out doesn’t mean you throw those clothes in the trash, right? You shelve it and wait for them to pick it out themselves.

Which brings me to the next point: fill your fridge, cabinets and cupboards with things you actually want your kid to eat. Hate it when your kid picks mac and cheese EVERY night? Me too. It begs the question: Why is it still in the house?! Aren’t you the one doing the shopping?

A tantrum at the table is never because the broccoli was overcooked.

If you’re using mac and cheese as a pacifier to settle the dinner tantrums, please re-read the sections above on separating behavior issues from food issues and making separate meals.

Let the after-school snack be some fruit and peanut butter, vegetables and hummus etc. Are they only eating the fruit? Good! They’re more after the power of deciding than they are spiting you and your desire to nurture them. Picking one of two healthy options is still a healthy option.

And don’t think just because they skipped on the raw carrots this time means you don’t buy them anymore. Seeing something more often will make them more apt to want to try it eventually.

Variety is your best friend. Monotony is your worst. Just because your kids love that eggplant parmesan doesn’t mean they need it 4 days in a row. There is calm and predictability in monotony, but not a whole lot of nutrients. The internet is an infinite cookbook to add different spins on diverse ingredients. Variety in their diet will keep your kids getting the necessary nutrients to fuel healthy bodies.

In the end, know your why.

Changing feeding habits is a long, emotional road. Expect pushback with tantrums and mood swings. Depending on their previous dietary habits, this can be comparable to breaking an addiction. Understand the gravity of how a child’s diet influences their emotion, physical and psychological development and commit to changing their environment and sticking to your guns.

Do you have your own strategies for keeping your kid’s diets fresh? Any lasting relationships with food, good or bad, that you can trace from your childhood? Share them!

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