It's one of the most common — and frustrating — struggles of parenting tots and preschoolers: picky eaters! Many parents find themselves in the chicken nuggets rut or suddenly with kids who don't want to eat much at all, and it can feel impossible to ever get out of it. But there's hope! “What parents often interpret as picky eating is actually the fact that they don’t anticipate that growth slows down at 1-year-old, meaning the child will not have the same level of appetite,” says Gregory Plemmons, M.D., assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. “It’s natural for parents to have a lot of anxiety about it, but they should remember that kids will eat when they are hungry. I never recommend forcing a child to eat if he doesn’t want to.” “Bad habits start early, so good eating habits need to start early on,” says Plemmons. “Encourage fruits and vegetables early on, and tell children where food actually comes from. It doesn’t come from the store,” he adds. When it comes to introducing new foods to your young ones, keep in mind the following tips from the Mayo Clinic:
1. Respect your child’s appetite, or lack of one
Young children tend to eat only when they’re hungry. If your child isn’t hungry, don’t force him to eat a meal or even a snack. Likewise, don’t bribe or force your child to clean his plate. This may only ignite – or reinforce – a power struggle over food.
2. Establish a routine, and stick to it
Serve meals and snacks at the same times every day. Eliminate juice, milk and snacks for at least one hour before meals. If your child comes to the table hungry, he may be more motivated to eat.
3. Be patient with new foods
Young children often touch or smell new foods, and they may even put tiny bits in their mouths and spit them back out again. Many youngsters need repeated exposure to a new food before they take the first bite. Encourage your child by talking about a food’s color, shape, aroma and texture – not whether it tastes good.
4. Make it fun
Serve broccoli and other veggies with a favorite dip or sauce. Cut foods into various shapes with cookie cutters. Offer breakfast foods for dinner.
5. Recruit your child’s help
At the grocery store, ask your child to help you select fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods. Don’t buy anything that you don’t want your child to eat. At home, encourage your child to help you rinse veggies, stir batter or set the table.
6. Set a good example
If you eat a variety of healthy foods, your kiddo will be more likely to do so as well.
7. Go ahead, be sneaky
Add chopped broccoli or green peppers to spaghetti sauce, top cereal with fruit slices or mix grated zucchini and carrots into casseroles and soups. Pureed cauliflower can be easily blended into mashed potatoes, and your child will be none the wiser!
8. Minimize distractions
Turn off the TV during meals, and don’t allow books, tech devices or toys at the table.
9. Don’t offer dessert as a reward
Withholding dessert sends the message that dessert is the best food, which may only increase your child’s desire for sweets. Consider only having dessert one or two nights a week, and dessert doesn't have to be cake, pie or ice cream — you can redefine it as fruit, yogurt or another healthy option.
10. Don’t be a short order cook
Preparing a separate meal for your child after he rejects the original one will only encourage your child’s picky eating behavior. Keep serving your child healthy choices until they become familiar and preferred. Local mom Maggie Jackson, of Nashville, enjoys life without the finicky eating struggle, largely in part to the direct approach she took when her sons, Lex and Oliver, were little. “Fortunately, both of my boys are good eaters. I’ve always taken the take-it-or-leave-it approach with them,” says Jackson. “They get one chance for a meal, and if they don’t want it, too bad. If they don’t eat, it goes into the trash,” she adds. “That’s the right approach to take,” says Plemmons.