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Thursday, 22 March 2001

Avoiding Meal Time Stress

Written by  Esther Boylan Wolfson

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Do you find that your child refuses to touch her plate if the noodles are too close to the meatballs? Or that even the slightest touch of burnt crust relegates an entire plate of food to the garbage pail?

Well, you are not alone.

It seems to me that most families have at least one picky eater and mine is certainly not immune. For the last five years, since my son spit out his first taste of strained carrot, I have been trying to figure out the answer to this question:

How Can I Get This Kid To Eat?

Here are some strategies that I use to help my picky eater get the nutrients he needs to grow.

  • Make A "Like List"

    We are often so upset over what a picky child does not eat (everything it seems!) that we don't consider what he or she will eat. Make a list. If your child is old enough, sit down and make the list with her. Keep the list on hand when you plan meals. Update the list every few months to include any changes.

  • At Every Meal, Prepare One Food From The "Like List"

    You can't plan all the food in your household around a picky eater. What you can do is take her needs into consideration and try and make sure that at least one of the dishes on the table will appeal to her.

  • Plan Menus

    Here's a suggestion that may help children ages four and up. Plan menus together with your child.

    Every Sunday, I sit with my two older children and discuss what they want to eat for dinner that week. This does not mean that I leave it totally up to them, but I involve them in the decision.

    While my son's first reaction to curry chicken may still be, " I don't want any," he is usually less upset if he feels forewarned.

    When planning the food for the week, you can consider allowing your child to choose the menu for some meals. Your picky eater can not expect everyone to always eat only what he likes, but there is nothing wrong with making some of your family's meals according to his tastes. Keep in mind that you can also "enrich" his choices. If he chooses noodles and cheese, you can still serve sliced vegetables and fruit as a side dish.

  • Accept Repetition

    You do not need to be concerned, says Connie Steinberg, clinical nutritionist, if your child prefers to eat the same foods over and over again. While adults usually look forward to new food experiences, young children get a sense of comfort and security from eating the same foods day after day. Try and get your child to take a bite of a new food, but have some regular back-ups available.

  • Let Your Child Help In The Preparation

    There are no guarantees, but I find that children are more likely to try foods if they are involved in preparing them. Let your child help you cook the meal. You never know, it might help and it can't hurt. (For more information about involving your child in the cooking process read Cooking With Young Children.)

  • Limit Soft Drinks

    Don't let your child fill up on soft drinks such as juice, punch and soda. If your child is thirsty, offer as much water as he wants. Save other drinks for after he eats "something."

  • Try To Offer Choices

    If you say to a picky eater, "it's chicken or nothing," the answer will inevitably be "nothing." If you say "it's chicken or hamburger," the child will usually pause to consider the choice. The answer may still be "nothing," but you are more likely to get a positive response. This does not mean you should make two main dishes for each meal. Do consider if you have anything around (maybe last night's leftovers) that can fill in as the "choice."

  • Accept Pickiness

    Try not to get worked up about obsessions with edges being burnt, foods touching each other, not liking the crusts, etc. Calmly say, "O.K., you don't like this part, I'll take it away." Better still, teach him to push whatever he doesn't want to the side.

    You can let your child know there are acceptable ways to make a request. Pushing the plate away and yelling, "Yuck, it's burnt," is unacceptable. Saying, "I don't like the burnt part," is fine.

    Don't let your child drive you crazy with constant requests. You can help him eat by being attentive to his needs. You should not allow him to make you arrange his food four times in the course of a meal.

  • Start With Small Portions

    For many children, says Steinberg, eating is sometimes a chore and a large plate of food can be overwhelming. It sometimes helps, she suggests, to give your child small portions and then let him ask for more rather than filling up his plate and then getting upset that he hasn't eaten enough.

  • Don't Give Up Trying

    Sometimes we get so used to a picky eater saying no, that we stop asking. Don't fall into this trap!

    Approach every meal as if your child will love it! Always offer your child every item, even if last time he said no. You never know, this time he may be willing to at least "try."

  • Give Encouragement

    If your child eats something new, take notice! Encourage your child to "just try it." One bite can be all he needs to discover that it's not so bad.

    If usually he doesn't take a bite, compliment him for trying. If he tries foods, but doesn't take more than a bite or two, make sure to compliment him if he finishes the whole plate.

  • Confine The Conflict

    Avoid making food and eating habits a source of a power struggle between you and your child. Do not punish your child for not eating by taking away non-food related privileges. If you make mealtime unpleasant and stressful, your child will only dread it more. You can let your child know that certain food treats are dependent on a healthy diet. If my child wants to eat dessert or candy, I insist he eat healthy food first. This method works well with many children. With some children it can backfire, by giving too much importance to sweets. Use your judgement as to what will work best with your child.

  • Provide Healthy Snacks

    Healthy food does not have to be limited to mealtime. When your child wants a snack between meals, don't go straight for the cookie jar. Instead, try some of the following:

    • Slices of fruit
    • Cut up veggies with dip
    • Crackers with peanut butter or wedges of cheese
    • Rice cakes or celery with peanut butter
    • Apple sauce
    • Cereal and milk

    If the snacks he eats provide some real nourishment, you can also be more relaxed about how much healthy food he eats during mealtime.

  • Read And Talk About Food Choices

    Three great books for picky eaters are Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss, Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban, and Gregory, the Terrible Eater by Mitchell Sharmat. Read these books with your young picky eater and discuss them. Children love to hear books that remind them of their own experiences.

  • Give A Multi-Vitamin Daily

    Vitamins do not take the place of food, but they can help to complete a diet that may be lacking in one area or another. Consult with your pediatrician before supplementing your child's diet. If he gives you a choice on the type of vitamins, let your child choose. Often picky eaters are picky about everything. So if she doesn't like Flintstones vitamins, buy Sesame Street. Keep trying until you get something she likes. Make sure to confirm the wisdom of your child's choice with her doctor!

  • Relax And Don't Worry

    As long as you're providing your child with healthy, relatively balanced meals and encouraging him to eat right, you are doing your part.

    If you are concerned about your child's health, check with your pediatrician to ensure that his weight and overall growth are age appropriate.

    As long as he seems happy and healthy, don't make his eating habits a central part of your relationship. Remember the day may actually come when your child will take his first bite of that curry chicken, look up at you in shock and say:

    "I Like It!"

Last modified on Wednesday, 24 April 2013 20:46
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Esther Boylan Wolfson

Esther Boylan Wolfson

Esther Wolfson , director of our Early Childhood Development Center is an Early Childhood Specialist, who received her BA in English Communications from Stern College for Women, Yeshiva University and an MA in Early Childhood Special Education from Teachers College, Columbia University, both in New York City. Esther worked as a pre-school special education teacher for seven years. Three of those years were spent working in a school for language delayed pre-schoolers, which is her area of specialty. Another special love of hers is cooking with young children. One of her most enjoyable projects was developing a program for cooking with pre-school children for three special education programs. Esther and her husband Myles have three boys aged eight, five and two-years-old. While her three lively boys and her work at WholeFamily, keep her quite busy, in her spare time (if she ever has any!) she is an avid reader who also enjoys creative writing, exercising and swimming.

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