By Donna Cornelius
Parents of picky eaters may sometimes wonder whether their child will grow into adulthood still eating only pizza and peanut butter.
Thankfully, that’s usually not the case. My older son used to hide cans of green beans in random spots around the house so I couldn’t cook them, and my younger son would willingly eat only one vegetable: corn. Today, they’re both high-level foodies who love to try anything that’s new and edible.
Rainie Carter, a pediatric dietitian at Children’s of Alabama, said it’s true that most children eventually expand their culinary horizons. But not always.
“People tend to think they’ll grow out of it, and often that’s the case,” Carter said. “But I have 16-year-olds who eat only chicken nuggets and fries. As soon as you start to notice that picky eating is becoming a problem, it’s time to seek help to get ideas.”
With some children, such as those with diabetes or gluten intolerance, it’s clear that help from dietitians like Carter is needed. But unhealthy diets can cause less obvious problems, too, such as a decrease in activity levels and an inability to concentrate at school, she said.
Ready to help your child get off to a healthy start in 2016? Carter offered these tips:
- “No sugar in drinks – that’s our main go-to advice,” Carter said. “Sugar is in all fruit juices. It’s better to eat the fruit itself for the fiber and to help keep you full. We get enough sugar in our diets.”
- Your kids will do as you do and not as you say. “Set an example of healthy eating yourself, or it’s never going to work,” Carter said. “Families don’t sit down at the dinner table as much anymore. Pick at least one night a week to do that, and serve a variety of foods. Let your kids see you eating what you want them to eat.”
- Carter said she’s noticed that kids get pickier at about age 3. “That’s a pivotal time; they’re trying to test you,” she said. “Don’t turn into a short-order cook, or your kids will think, ‘If I don’t eat this, mom will make me what I want.’”
- While most kids are eventually going to eat if their stomachs are growling, parents often hesitate at the thought of sending their kids to bed hungry, Carter said. There’s a way to make sure that doesn’t happen without giving in to your child’s pickiness.
“Give them two things they like and one they don’t,” Carter said. “For example, if they like mac and cheese, give them that – but give them broccoli, too. They don’t have to eat the broccoli – but they’re not going to get more mac and cheese.”
- Make food fun. “Go outside the sandwich, chips and drink combination for lunch,” Carter said. For example, kids like “everything on a stick,” she said. Thus, if your children turn up their noses at a plain old apple, try putting apple slices, strawberries, grapes and other fruits on a skewer.
Check out blogs to get creative ideas. Glue Sticks and Gumdrops has a great recipe for dinosaur bento lunch boxes. You cut cheese into shapes using dino cookie cutters, put them into paper cupcake liners and add spinach leaves, pretzel sticks and olives for a woodsy look. Who doesn’t love a tasty T-Rex for lunch?
- Set your kids up for success. “Buy lots of fruits and vegetables,” Carter said. “It’s hard to ignore a carton of ice cream in the freezer. If it’s not there, your child can’t choose it.”
- Fast food may be a fact of life for today’s busy families, but Carter recommends limiting fast food to one time a week or for special occasions.
“Picky eating often comes from eating out, because children can pick what they want,” she said. “Tell them, ‘You can have this or that’ so they don’t make the same choices every time.” And choose grilled options when they’re available, she added.
- Learn more from your good friends on the Internet. Carter said one site to check out is www.kidshealth.org. In the site’s nutrition and health section, you’ll find healthy recipes, a Body Mass Index calculator, and answers to frequently asked questions such as “How can I get my child to eat vegetables?” and “Why is breakfast so important?” The USDA’s www.choosemyplate.gov has specific information about the five food groups and recommended daily amounts.
- Get children involved in your family’s food. “It depends on the child, but let them help in the kitchen if they’re interested and go to farmers markets with you,” Carter said. “If you take your child to the grocery story, let them choose between oranges and apples – not oranges and snack cakes. And let them help you set menus. Ask them, ‘Did you like the baked chips we had with tacos?’”
- Canned and frozen fruits and vegetables are easy to prepare and can be healthy staples. “With fruits, look out for added sugar, and choose fruits packed in juice or water,” Carter said. “Rinse canned vegetables to remove a lot of the salt.”
- If all else fails – and this is my own advice and not dietitian-approved – turn on kid-centric cooking shows such as “Rachael vs. Guy: Kids Cook-off” on Food Network or “MasterChef Junior,” if you can stomach host Gordon Ramsay. YouTube has lots of videos starring kids in the kitchen, too. Who knows? You may be turning a once-picky eater into a future Michael Symon or Julia Child.