Establishing good eating habits in children can be a struggle for parents. We know to start early, but what do you do when your child refuses to eat anything you put in front of them, except for chicken nuggets and french fries? Healthy eating habits help to establish a foundation of good nutrition and healthy lifestyle habits that can reduce the risk for developing obesity, heart disease, cancer and other chronic diseases later in life.
It can help to start early by offering a variety of foods, especially fruits and vegetables. Although infants often eat a lot of fruit and vegetable baby foods, once they transition to table foods, what you, as a parent, eat is going to have a big influence on what your child is willing to eat. If you rarely serve healthy foods at meals, don’t be surprised if your kids develop the same tastes. Making healthy foods available and persistence in presenting a food is key to laying the framework for life-long dietary habits.
Presenting a variety of foods to your child, even if they continually turn up their nose at that food, is key. It is not uncommon for a child to reject a food 10-15 times before they are open to try it. Persistence is important. It may help to rename common foods using fun and appealing words such as, monster mashed potatoes (mashed sweet potatoes) or ants on a log (raisins and peanut butter on celery). These funny names can sometimes spark a child’s interest in tasting a new food.
If your child is an extra finicky eater, there are a few things you can make sure you are doing. Always avoid being a short-order cook. At mealtime, serve at least one food your child likes, but expect your child to eat the same foods the rest of the family is eating. Children often prefer plain foods that they can easily recognize. So leave sauces and extra seasonings off if this appears to be a problem.
While cooking, set aside a portion of the ingredients for mixed dishes before assembling the recipe. Then let the child help serve their plate arranging the foods any way that suits them. Letting children help in the kitchen is a good way to include them in the mealtime process. Research has shown that children who help in the kitchen are more likely to eat the foods they help prepare. Even very young children can help wash fruits and vegetables or put sandwich meat between bread. If your child continuously refuses to eat certain foods, such as broccoli, just offer other foods within the same group, such as carrots or green beans. Foods from the same food group often supply similar nutrients.
Feeding a picky eater can be frustrating, but the most important piece of advice for a parent is to relax. Focus your attention on the positive aspects of your child’s eating behavior, and not on your child’s food. Instead of aiming for perfection, try for consistency so children are exposed to healthy options. This will help lay a solid foundation for a healthy lifestyle.
Whitney Roberts is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator for the Blount Memorial Weight Management Center.