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Got a Picky Eater? Help is Here!

Category: Patient Stories
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Published in Moms & Dads Today, July/August 2015

Got a Picky Eater? Help is Here!

If you’re a parent, raise your hand if this sounds familiar: you’ve planned, shopped-for and prepared a delicious, healthy meal, placed it on the table in front of your young children and promptly are met with a less-than-appreciative “I don’t like that,” along with wrinkled up noses, maybe a defiant arm-cross, and a plea of “why can’t we have mac and cheeeeese?”

(Guessing every parental hand is up by now.)

In a world filled with processed, ready-to-eat meals and sugar-laden snacks and cereals, getting kids to “eat the rainbow” of vegetables and fruits can feel like a losing battle. Fortunately, says Jen Prachar, a registered dietitian at St. Luke’s who specializes in pediatric nutrition, there are some easy steps you can take to help your children eat better—and quite possibly save your sanity at mealtime.

Control issues

“The first thing to do is to relax,” said Prachar. “When mealtime turns into a test of wills, food turns into something other than food—it becomes control. So take a deep breath, and know that no one is going to starve.”

Prachar observed that in many families, picky eating can develop early. “At around 18 months or so, as more table foods are introduced into a child’s diet, it is common for them to reject so-called ‘adult foods’ at first. Parents understandably want their kids to eat, so they often don’t reintroduce those foods. The result is a widening gap between what the adults are eating and what the kids are eating.”

Simple strategies for healthier eating

If you have a picky eater, Prachar has some simple strategies. “Establish the rules: the parent is responsible for what the child is offered, where it’s offered, and when. From the offered food, the child is responsible for what they eat, and how much—but not when.”

The next step is to introduce variety. “Let’s use dinner as an example,” said Prachar. “Everyone should be offered the same things for dinner—no more ‘kid meals’ and ‘adult meals.’ Make sure that there is at least one food that they will eat, and only offer one new food per meal.” Then, said Prachar, the key is to let your kids try it when they are ready. “It may take as many as 10 exposures to a new food before they even try it,” said Prachar. “And that’s perfectly normal. Encourage your kids to try the new foods, but don’t force the issue.”

Gone too, she said, is the “clean plate club” many parents grew up with. “Kids are great at determining when they are full. If they choose not to eat, that’s fine, make sure they know there will be no food until the next designated meal time, but let it go,” said Prachar.

The recipe for health

Because the issue of diet is fundamental to a child’s health, physicians want to know the truth about what a child is—or isn’t—eating. Dr. Gretchen Karstens is a pediatrician at St. Luke’s Pediatric Associates, and says that parents are often exasperated (and sometimes embarrassed) about their children’s diet. “It feels like the pace of life is so fast today,” said Karstens. “And the reality is, when a family is moving in all directions, healthful, home-cooked meals can become a casualty of soccer practices, piano lessons and swim meets. It’s not a failure. It’s life. And that’s okay,” she stressed. “A great way to get a handle on that and minimize the trips to the drive-thru is to get the family together on Sunday and quickly map out the week ahead. Figure out what schedules are going to be, and come up with a mealplan that fits your family.” By bringing your family into the meal-planning process, you can also get them involved in preparing the food. “Let your kids see and help in dinner prep. The more they are around healthful foods, the better. The smells of preparation can also pique their appetites for new flavors,” Karstens said.

As a physician, Karstens sees firsthand the impact of a child’s diet. “Nutrition comes up in a lot of different ways during checkups. Eating can influence depression or anxiety. Constipation is another common concern, and diet definitely plays a role.” Diet is also a primary factor in affecting a child’s weight, another common point of parental concern, she said.

Bottom line, said both Karstens and Prachar, is that when dealing with picky eaters, it’s going to be okay. “Take a deep breath and remember who is in charge. Picky eaters go through life and live. You can do it.”