WASHINGTON — After a long day at work, few things are more frustrating than coming home to a battle at the dinner table, where bargains are made between parents and kids over what needs to be eaten before plates are cleared. And for parents of picky eaters, mealtime can be a downright nightmare.
Cindy Morrison is familiar with the difficulties of pleasing picky eaters. She is a certified speech language pathologist, feeding therapist and founder of Chew Chew Mama, a service that offers feeding advice and online coaching for parents.
While picky eating is a common trait among children, Morrison says it’s an important one to address, since the early years of childhood are the most important, nutritionally.
“Their brains are developing and growing and the good food that they’re eating is supporting that,” she says. “So when you have a child that’s only eating chicken nuggets and yogurt and wants crackers … they’re limited with what their body is getting to help them grow to their potential.”
One thing Morrison wants parents to understand is that being a picky eater doesn’t mean a child is acting out; it’s not always behavioral. Instead, she says, it’s a common developmental milestone.
“When you go to the pediatrician for your well visits, they talk a lot about gross motor milestones — when they’re standing, when they’re walking, when they’re sitting up — but they really don’t talk about ‘During this month, your child’s going to go through a natural stage of refusing foods,’” says Morrison.
The best thing parents can do is be prepared for these milestones and not be quick to address the situation as a behavioral issue, she says.
“When they’re addressing it as behavior, that’s when it actually becomes that psychological, behavioral component. When they’re young and they’re going through these milestones, if you support them through them, versus … starting a battle, that time period of them being pickier will pass over more quickly.”
While every child is different, and therefore reaches milestones at different times in life, Morrison says it’s common to see children get pickier with food between 18 and 36 months, and then again around 5 or 6 years, when they go through a stage of secondary teething.
What’s the best way to support a picky eater and continue to introduce your child to new, nutritious foods? Morrison offers her tips for parents and caregivers.
Don’t give into demands; offer modifications
While Morrison says it’s important to be supportive of your picky eater as he goes through the expected milestones, that doesn’t mean you need to give into demands.
“You’re not going to say, ‘OK. Don’t eat it. You’re going through a feeding milestone and you don’t have to eat chicken for the next three months.’ But what you can do is support them.”
And one way to show support is to make modifications to the food your child is refusing.
For example, dicing a food into smaller pieces or serving it with dips can make it more appealing to children. Also, serving a food with a variety of “pairing options” can entice a child to eat.
“Maybe take half of a grape and chicken both on the fork and show them, ‘Listen, you can change the flavor of that chicken by combining it with something else on your fork. Let’s see how it tastes when we add a grape, or let’s see how it tastes when we add a tomato. It’s different each time.’”
Offering pairing options also gives a child a feeling of control and a sense of accomplishment when they recognize that they can make a change to their food to better fit their tastes.
Introduce new foods in small quantities
There are many ways to introduce children to new foods, many of which are research-based. Morrison says one of the best approaches is with multiple exposures and in small amounts.
“For instance, if you’re introducing salmon for the first time, you don’t want to give them an entire plate of salmon,” she says.
Instead, put one to two small bites on your child’s plate earlier in the day.
“Maybe it showed up at snack time; of course, if you’re not with your child during the day, maybe you do this on a weekend.”
Make sure your child sees you try the new food, and even present it on a plate with a few of their favorites.
“Let them see it; talk to them about taking steps to look at it, touch it, smell it before they’re required to put it in their mouth. All of these things are incredibly helpful for giving them time to process it. I think too often we present food to children in too large of amounts, and then we just kind of expect them to go for it because we like it. But what’s really important to remember is that their taste buds evolve over time,” Morrison says.
“Never say to tell them ‘You’re going to get this food you like if you try this food.’ Using the preferred food as a reward — research shows that that doesn’t work. In fact, it works against parents.”
Play with your food
Adults are very familiar with tastings — whether with wine, tapas or desserts. So why not introduce children to the concept as well?
“The beauty of those tasting events is that we’re getting very small amounts of a lot of different types of foods,” Morrison says.
One way to do a tasting for children is to hold a theme day, such as an “orange day” where kids can try all different types of orange foods. Morrison recently held a “green day” tasting for her kids and their friends. She says everyone was so excited about the idea of green food that they tried everything.
“When they see one child going for it, the likelihood that they’re going for it as well is increased,” Morrison says. “Make it silly; make it fun. Use that positive food marketing.”
Set a good example
Peers aren’t the only ones who can have a positive influence on picky eaters. Morrison says parents play a major role as well.
“Research shows us that parents actually have the largest effect on their kids,” she says. “Some parents will encourage their kids to eat vegetables, but not eat them, and if they’re seeing their parents are not eating vegetables, that’s what they’re learning.”