Converting a Picky Eater

by Cheryl Tallman and Joan Ahlers

Recently, Time magazine ran a story called "Rethinking First Foods." It was a great summary of the latest information on the importance of feeding your baby healthy foods in the first two years of their life. The article had some very frightening statistics and comments from experts in the pediatric field who paint a doom and gloom story that confirms our kids are getting fatter. The problem with the story was it left us, as parents, feeling defeated.

We'd like to pick up where the story left off by offering tips that can make a difference when it comes to developing your child's eating habits. One of the points brought up in the story is that parents tend to feed their baby's and toddlers "kid food." We all know what this is. It's pizza, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, chips, etc. and we know this stuff is not healthy. So if it is just as easy to open a bag of baby carrots as it is a bag of chips why do are many parents reaching for chips over carrots? Many parents say it is because they have a "picky eater" and these are the only foods the child will eat.

What most parents don't realize is that all toddlers are picky eaters. And it's a perfectly normal, even expected developmental behavior. You may be to find out that this behavior has very little to do with the taste of food and is mostly about wanting control of a situation. Most toddlers learn very early that eating is very easy to control and it is likely to get a response out of you. This makes it fun (for your kid, not you)!

The big challenge for parents is NOT to give into this behavior, and DON'T fall into the trap of offering bland, unhealthy foods as a replacement for flavorful, healthy foods. This can be a difficult time. Here is our advice:

Start early: Children form habits that make them picky eaters. Habits are hard to break. You are better off if you can prevent the habits from forming. At the very first signs of finicky behavior, explain to your child that it is not healthy to eat the same foods all the time. Serve a good variety of foods at meals, and encourage your young ones to taste new foods. New food choices can be described as "special treats."

Include them: Children are more likely to eat something that they have helped make, so get your children involved in preparing meals. You can also take them shopping and teach them how to find and select foods. Involving your kids in making decisions reinforces that you care about their opinion and want to make things that they like. Never ask "Do you want broccoli for dinner?" offer choices like "Do you want broccoli or cauliflower for dinner?" Simple choices make your child feel like they are the ones in control.

Set goals: Be realistic about setting goals. It is not realistic to try to force your child to eat a whole serving of food that they claim not to like. Instead start off with small expectations, like one bite of the new food, and work your way up from there.

Be consistent, firm, and don't give up: Use the same tactics at each and every meal. Put new foods on your child's plate first. Remind your child of the goal and offer plenty of encouragement. Don't give in to stubbornness. It may also work to try "Look Mommy (or Daddy) will try a bite with you."

Don't rush meals: It is quite likely that your child is a slow eater, and this is a good habit to encourage. Offer your child plenty of time to eat a meal.

Praise: Even if it is just one nibble, congratulate your child. For a picky eater -- this little nibble is a big deal. Ask them if they thought it was tasty. If they say "no," tell them it may take a few bites to notice the delicious flavor or suggest maybe it would taste better with ketchup on it. The point being, don't let them shutdown the thought that this food may actually taste good someday.

Be a good role model: It is plain and simple. You cannot expect to raise children that eat a good variety of healthy foods if you do not. This fact goes for all adults who sit at the table with your children. Your toddler learns from watching and mimicking you. You may have to venture out of your own comfort zone of eating and try new foods yourself. Remember, you are being watched.