by Heather A. Goesch, MPH, RDN, LDN
Though you may know what a healthful diet looks like for your child, getting him or her to eat it is not always a success. If you have children, particularly toddlers, chances are you’ve experienced the mealtime battles, tossing out perfectly good food (or cleaning it off the floor and walls), and then stressing about adequate nutrition.
Fussy or “picky” eating can be incredibly frustrating for parents, grandparents and other caretakers. Whether it’s a food jag (eating only one or a couple things for an extended period) or the more extreme refusal to eat anything, toddler and preschool-aged children are learning to exert independence and test boundaries.
One oft-prosed method in which to overcome these issues is for parents to stand their ground, putting pressure on children to eat the foods presented. But new research published in the journal Appetite suggests that pressuring is not an effective approach.
This University of Michigan study followed an ethnically diverse group of 244 two- and three-year-olds for a period of one year. The researchers compared parental tactics to the children’s growth and how picky eating changed during that period, and found that both the kids’ weight and picky behaviors remained stable regardless of parents pressuring them or not. One curious finding, however, is that strong-arming at the table may instead result in damage to the personal relationship between parent and child – certainly not the desired effect.
As parents and caretakers, we are responsible for providing nutritious options for our children in a safe, welcoming environment. Here are several ideas to encourage mealtime acceptance in a healthy way:
· Involve children in gardening to help them learn where food comes from and how it grows.
· Encourage kids to select a new fruit, vegetable or whole grain at the grocery store or market, then find a recipe and prepare it together.
· Talk with children about the colors, shapes and sounds a food makes when you break or bite into it.
· If you have access, a farmer’s market is a great place for kids to explore new things and learn about new ingredients.
· Schedule meals and snacks at roughly the same time daily – kids thrive on routine and consistency.
· Turn off the TV and other devices to eliminate distractions.
· Model good behavior yourself by offering and trying a couple of nutritious options at meals.
· Be creative and make mealtimes about togetherness and fun at the table.
· If your children are a bit older, talk about nutrition and why the foods offered are good for their growing bodies.
When kids develop healthy habits early in life, the benefits will last a lifetime. Picky eater or not, give a few of these ideas a try to promote acceptance, minimize mealtime battles, and to help your child learn to appreciate, even love, nutritious food.
Connecting with Kids Through Food Art, Food & Nutrition Magazine
8 Ways to Get Picky Eaters to Become More Adventurous, Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics
Expert Tips to Get Kids Eating – and Cooking – Healthy Foods, Oldways
Three Tips to Teach Food Literacy to Kids, and Carrot & Raisin Citrus Salad, Eating Rules
Free Childhood Nutrition Resources, Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Lumeng JC, Miller AL, Appugliese K, Rosenblum N, Kaciroti N. Picky eating, pressuring feeding, and growth in toddlers. Appetite. 2018;123:299