Picky Eaters Are Healthy Kids

By Beth Cline

Recently, I overheard a parent in a grocery store explain her child’s picky eating habits to a friend. Among a long list of specific foods the child would not eat was anything squishy, any foods that had touched on the plate and a new aversion to red foods including but not limited to tomatoes, strawberries, ketchup, beets, and even red Kool-Aid or Jell-O. She went on to explain that the child would only eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on whole wheat bread with the crust removed and cut in half diagonally. To many parents, the habits of this picky eater may sound familiar.

Picky eating can be perfectly normal behavior in young children. In the first year of life, babies eat and grow rapidly. Then, as their growth begins to slow, so does their appetite. This means as little as one meal and one snack a day may be plenty filling for little stomachs. Children are more sensitive to tastes- preferring sweet and mild to bitter, spicy or sour flavors. Temperature and texture of foods may also cause children’s pickiness. Frozen foods tend to be embraced; hot foods are shunned, and moist foods are better received than dry ones.

Unless the child loses weight or stops gaining weight over a drawn out period of time, picky eaters are getting enough calories. Concerns about a child’s nutritional diversity and caloric intake can be addressed by simply making a list of foods the child enjoys. Many parents are surprised to find the list is longer, and more varied, than expected.

Dealing with picky eating is a matter of creativity and patience. Every parent of a finicky eater is bound to get frustrated at one point or another. Here are some things to remember when dealing with a picky child:

• Buy, prepare and offer healthy foods.

• If a child refuses to eat, don’t push or punish them. It will only turn them off of a particular food or food group even more.

• Avoid bribing children with one food to get them to eat another. This reinforces that one food is better than the other (i.e. if they down the broccoli, they will get to enjoy a dessert).

• Children are learning to respond to their body’s signals for hunger and fullness. Allow them to eat when they are hungry, even if it is not at a designated meal or snack time. When they are full, do not force them to clean their plates- this will only lead to overeating and put them at risk for childhood obesity.

• Set an example. If the parent tries a new food, or enjoys healthful ones, the child is more likely to emulate that action.

• Don’t offer a special or separate meal to picky eaters. Offer them a variety at each meal, and if they are hungry enough, they will find something to eat. If not, offer them healthy snack options at a later time.

Many children use eating as a way of expressing independence. They can’t control most aspects of their lives, but they can control what they put in their mouth. Allow them to exert this control by asking for their input on meals and snacks. However, help them make decisions in a controlled manner. Instead of asking an open-ended question about what they would like for a snack, try giving children a choice between two healthy foods (would you like a carrot sticks or a banana?). Here are some other ideas for helping children make healthy choices:

• Allow children to help with the shopping and dinner preparation. While they may not be able to readily identify a food they like, it is easier to point it out in the store or refrigerator.

• Have a ‘new food night’ each week. Rotate which family member chooses the new food for everyone to try.

• Offer foods repeatedly over time. One study suggests a child must be exposed to a new food as many as 15 times before they will be willing to try it.

• For children who won’t readily put anything healthy on their plate, insist they take one bite of a new food, and if they don’t like it, praise their willingness to try a new thing and move on.

• Make food fun by using cookie cutters to create fun shapes for sandwiches.

• Give some new kid-friendly recipes a try, like this one, recommended by Sunkist:

o Citrus Yogurt Sundaes

  • 8 oz. lowfat vanilla yogurt
  • 1 tsp. freshly grated Sunkist® orange peel
  • 1 tsp. freshly grated Sunkist® grapefruit peel
  • 2 Sunkist® grapefruit, peeled and sectioned
  • 2 Sunkist® oranges, peeled and cut into half-cartwheel slices
  • 2 bananas, sliced
  • 1 cup blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, or seedless grapes
  • ¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • To make one portion: Combine the yogurt, orange and grapefruit peels; cover and chill. In a large bowl, combine all the remaining ingredients; cover and chill. To serve, spoon fruit mixture into individual dessert dishes and top with the yogurt. Makes 6 servings.

Remember for most children, picky eating is a phase and they will grow out of it. Whether it’s a new-found dislike for foods of a certain color, or a specific meal a child just won’t touch, the best thing parents can do is offer a child healthy choices.

Articles in the Healthy Kids Series are presented by the Marine Corps Marathon Healthy Kids Fun Run to be held on Saturday, October 28, 2006. The one-mile run welcomes children ages 6-13. Registration is now open at www.marinemarathon.com . Beth Cline is the Public Relations Coordinator for the Marine Corps Marathon. No federal or Marine Corps endorsement implied.

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