It’s getting to be that time of year again, with the holidays coming up fast! As your integrative pediatrician and dedicated medical home in the Mile High City, we are always focused on getting and keeping your children on a healthy track. We fully understand, however, that the holiday season, with all its rich food and sugary treats, can present special challenges in this regard. We have previously published a blog on healthy eating for the holidays, offering practical tips ranging from healthy food substitutions to suggestions for hosting holiday events. Preparing healthier food won’t do your children much good, however, if they refuse to eat it! For that reason, we’d like to focus now on some equally helpful tips for dealing with the picky eaters in your family, and not only during the holidays but all year round.
What Do I Do? My Child Won’t Eat!
Picky eating doesn’t generally “become a thing” until your child becomes a toddler. As you may already know from personal experience, it is at that stage that your child generally begins to develop food preferences, which can be long-lasting but more often may change rather quickly. For weeks at a time, they may even refuse to eat anything except a few preferred foods. Although it can be natural to feel some frustration with this behavior, try to resist the temptation! Instead, make healthy food choices available to your young one and know that, with time, your child’s appetite and eating behaviors will become more consistent. While you are patiently waiting, here are some general tips, compiled by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), that can help you get through the picky eater stage, no matter what time of year it hits:
1. Family style. Share a meal together as a family as often as you can. This means no media distractions like TV or cell phones at mealtime. Use this time to model healthy eating. Serve one meal for the whole family and resist the urge to make another meal if your child refuses what you’ve served. This only encourages picky eating. Try to include at least one food your child likes with each meal and continue to provide a balanced meal, whether she eats it or not.
2. Food fights. If your toddler refuses a meal, avoid fussing over it. It’s good for children to learn to listen to their bodies and use hunger as a guide. If they ate a big breakfast or lunch, for example, they may not be interested in eating much the rest of the day. It’s a parent’s responsibility to provide food, and the child’s decision to eat it. Pressuring kids to eat, or punishing them if they don’t, can make them actively dislike foods they may otherwise like.
3. Break from bribes. Tempting as it may be, try not to bribe your children with treats for eating other foods. This can make the “prize” food even more exciting, and the food you want them to try an unpleasant chore. It also can lead to nightly battles at the dinner table.
4. Try, try again. Just because a child refuses a food once, don’t give up. Keep offering new foods and those your child didn’t like before. It can take as many as 10 or more times tasting a food before a toddler’s taste buds accept it. Scheduled meals and limiting snacks can help ensure your child is hungry when a new food is introduced.
5. Variety: the spice. Offer a variety of healthy foods, especially vegetables and fruits, and include higher protein foods like meat and deboned fish at least 2 times per week. Help your child explore new flavors and textures in food. Try adding different herbs and spices to simple meals to make them tastier. To minimize waste, offer new foods in small amounts and wait at least a week or two before reintroducing the same food.
6. Make food fun. Toddlers are especially open to trying foods arranged in eye-catching, creative ways. Make foods look irresistible by arranging them in fun, colorful shapes kids can recognize. Kids this age also tend to enjoy any food involving a dip. Finger foods are also usually a hit with toddlers. Cut solid foods into bite size pieces they can easily eat themselves, making sure the pieces are small enough to avoid the risk of choking.
7. Involve kids in meal planning. Put your toddler’s growing interest in exercising control to good use. Let you child pick which fruit and vegetable to make for dinner or during visits to the grocery store or farmer’s market. Read kid-friendly cookbooks together and let your child pick out new recipes to try.
8. Tiny chefs. Some cooking tasks are perfect for toddlers (with lots of supervision, of course): sifting, stirring, counting ingredients, picking fresh herbs from a garden or windowsill, and “painting” on cooking oil with a pastry brush, to name a few.
9. Crossing bridges. Once a food is accepted, use what nutritionists call “food bridges” to introduce others with similar color, flavor and texture to help expand variety in what your child will eat. If your child likes pumpkin pie, for example, try mashed sweet potatoes and then mashed carrots.
10. A fine pair. Try serving unfamiliar foods, or flavors young children tend to dislike at first (sour and bitter), with familiar foods toddlers naturally prefer (sweet and salty). Pairing broccoli (bitter) with grated cheese (salty), for example, is a great combination for toddler taste buds.
As you can imagine, the above general tips are equally applicable to any picky eater issues you may encounter during the holiday season. However, the AAP has this specific advice to give regarding planning a balanced meal for Thanksgiving:
- Choose at least one food you know your child will like. Whether Thanksgiving will be served at your house or if you will be going to someone else’s home to celebrate, make sure to offer or bring at least one food that you know your child will like. This way, your child is guaranteed to eat something during the meal; it also shows your child you care about his or her preferences when planning meals.
- Engage your child in meal planning. Ask your child if he or she would be interested in helping you plan the Thanksgiving feast. Let him or her know you plan to offer at least one protein, a grain, a vegetable, and fruit. You can tell your child about any foods you are definitely planning to include (i.e., turkey as a protein and stuffing as a grain), but ask if he or she has ideas for the other food groups. For example, “What kind of vegetable do you think we should include? How about a fruit?” Then, together find recipes that use those foods as ingredients. A child who helps choose a food that will be offered is much more likely to actually eat it.
- Engage your child in meal prep. Invite your children in the kitchen to help prepare your Thanksgiving meal. For example, ask your toddler to help clean the vegetables, or your school-aged child to help mash the potatoes, or your teenager to boil the cranberries. When kids help cook food, they often sample what they are preparing, and are more likely to eat their masterpieces later.
- Use food bridges. Once a food is accepted, find similarly colored, flavored, or textured “food bridges” to expand the variety of foods your child will eat. For example, if your child likes pumpkin pie, try including mashed sweet potatoes on his or her Thanksgiving plate.
- Make it look, smell, and taste delicious. Many times kids think that they won’t like a food before they actually try it. By making a Thanksgiving dish look, smell, and taste delicious you up the odds that your child will try it out, like it, and come back for more. Do this by adding fragrant ingredients such a nutmeg and cinnamon to cooked apples—for example—or preparing a veggie tray with the vegetables arranged in the shape of a turkey.
- Keep the mealtime relaxing and enjoyable. Focus on enjoying your time together celebrating this day of gratitude. Know you have prepared a balanced meal and taken many efforts to engage your children in the process—increasing the chances of there being at least one food they will like. You have done your job. Try not to worry if and what your child is eating.
So once you have done the best you can by your picky eaters, using the above tips, you now have the AAP’s (and our permission) to not worry! Instead, enjoy your Thanksgiving get-togethers, no matter how large or small they may be, and continue practicing gratitude, both during the Thanksgiving holiday and throughout the year. We know that we are grateful for you, and we’d again like to thank all of our patient families for trusting your children’s health and well-being to us, your appreciative and dedicated medical home for quality pediatric care in Colorado. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!