Most parents are familiar with the “picky eater” — the child who is suspicious of new foods, has strong favorites, and may refuse to eat what the rest of the family is eating. Picky eating is very common in young children, but usually improves by age 5. This behavior occurs in part to exert some control over mealtime (and parents) in a way that is often attention-getting.
Regarding feeding your child, it is a parent’s job to offer healthy foods and decide the time and place for eating; it is the child’s job to decide what to eat and how much. Remember that children will eat when they are hungry, and with enough opportunities (it may take 15 “exposures” to something new), will accept and eat most foods. Pressuring a child to eat creates conflict and can make mealtime stressful, actually resulting in the child eating less. It is OK if your child occasionally misses a meal because they refuse to eat what is served.
There are things parents can do to minimize picky eating and encourage good eating habits that last a lifetime:
• Offer a variety of foods, including vegetables, as soon as your child starts solids in infancy.
• Have set mealtimes and decide how long meals will last; most kids can sit at the table for about 15 minutes for breakfast and lunch, and 20-30 minutes for dinner.
• Sit down for meals and do not allow kids to come and go from the table; if they are “done,” remove the plate and any uneaten food.
• “Open” the kitchen for planned meal or snack time, and “close” it at other times. Allow no other eating or drinking (except for water) as it may decrease the appetite for the next meal. Kids need three healthy, balanced meals and one or two small snacks daily.
• Get your child involved, whether by gardening, preparing food and helping with cooking (keep this age-appropriate), planning the meal or setting the table.
• Do not offer separate meals; you are not running a restaurant! You can have a “boring” option available (for example, plain bread) occasionally, but ignore whining or tantrums about food.
• Give new foods in very small amounts so they are not intimidating.
• Do not offer crackers, cookies, chips, etc. to get your child to eat something; if they are truly hungry, they will eat some of what is served.
• Do not use dessert as a bribe to eat a meal.
• Model healthy eating habits and keep discussion of eating neutral; no elaborate praise if they eat well and no criticism if they refuse to try a new food. Keep conversation light and upbeat so mealtimes are positive.
If you have concerns about your child’s ability to eat or swallow normally, or if you worry they may not be getting enough nutrition, talk to your child’s health care provider.
• Dr. Elise Herman is a (mostly) retired pediatrician after 28 years in private practice and three years at Kittitas Valley Healthcare in Ellensburg.