Deal­ing with picky eaters? Don’t make din­ner a bat­tle

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Health - By Casey Sei­den­berg Spe­cial to the Wash­ing­ton Post

Once upon a time, par­ents would force chil­dren to clean their plates dur­ing meals, re­gard­less of their hunger level. We now know this feed­ing strat­egy can teach chil­dren to ig­nore their own hunger cues and sub­se­quently overeat as adults, and thank­fully this prac­tice has de­clined.

The next con­tin­gent of par­ents ed­u­cated them­selves about nu­tri­tion to the de­gree that they earned the moniker “he­li­copter.” They pro­gressed from ex­pect­ing their kids to eat ev­ery item on a plate to ex­pect­ing them to eat some of ev­ery nutri­ent on a plate. When that didn’t hap­pen, these par­ents be­gan to panic. They begged, ca­joled or bribed their kids to eat three more bites, if they didn’t give in and make a sec­ond din­ner so the child would at least eat some­thing. This re­in­forced a gen­er­a­tion’s ten­dency to­ward picky eat­ing.

(I be­came a par­ent dur­ing the “no-thank-you bite” chap­ter: Kids needed to try one bite of ev­ery­thing on their plate, then could say “no thank you” if they didn’t like some­thing. This strat­egy in­her­ently sends the mes­sage that the child won’t like the food. Why is any­one sur­prised when that turns out to be the case?)

Since nei­ther of these ap­proaches re­sults in a child who eats a wide va­ri­ety of healthy foods, how should the story be rewrit­ten for this gen­er­a­tion? It boils down to tak­ing all pres­sure off of chil­dren to eat and al­ways mak­ing meal­times pos­i­tive.

As a pro­logue, all par­ents should live by the mantra, “It is not your job to get your child to eat.” We are re­spon­si­ble for pro­vid­ing them with food. It is our chil­dren’s job to de­cide if they want to eat the foods we serve. But we can en­cour­age them to eat well.

First, stop push­ing them. As Dina Rose says in her book “It’s Not About the Broc­coli,” “Pres­sure is your en­emy.” In­stead of harp­ing on a child to eat new foods, Rose sug­gests ac­cus­tom­ing chil­dren to tast­ing new foods. This could be tast­ing a new va­ri­ety of ap­ple, a yel­low cherry tomato in­stead of a red one or even a new type of cookie. It is widely shown that many chil­dren need to taste a food at least 10 times be­fore they de­cide they like it, so get­ting kids en­thu­si­as­tic to taste new foods is an im­per­a­tive step.

Many par­ents give up long be­fore the 10th taste or start beg­ging, plead­ing and forc­ing their kid to try one bite, mak­ing din­ner a bat­tle and prim­ing the child to never en­joy that bat­tle­ground food. In­stead, par­ents should con­tinue to of­fer foods un­der no-pres­sure sit­u­a­tions. If a child huffs and puffs and doesn’t taste it, she doesn’t taste it that night. No big deal — there is al­ways an­other night.

Be­cause chil­dren don’t have as many food ex­pe­ri­ences as adults, they can’t an­tic­i­pate what some­thing might taste like. This makes it scary for them to try an un­fa­mil­iar food. If we help them un­der­stand how some­thing tastes in an hon­est, non-ma­nip­u­la­tive way (in other words, don’t tell them plain yo­gurt tastes just like ice cream), they will be more open to try­ing it.

If they do try it, don’t im­me­di­ately ask them if they like it with an ea­ger, hope­ful voice. In­stead, ask them to de­scribe it: Is it rem­i­nis­cent of an­other food? Is it sweet, salty or spicy? Crunchy or chewy? Hot or cold? Even after they have de­scribed it, do not ask if they like it, be­cause if they say they don’t they will be less likely to try it again later. Just let them be pleased that they tasted a bite.

Sec­ond, par­ents should al­low their young kids to play with their food. In her guide “Try New Food!,” di­eti­tian Jill Cas­tle ex­plains that “the tac­tile in­ves­ti­ga­tion of food is part of de­vel­op­ment — it’s nec­es­sary, pro­duc­tive and speeds up the learn­ing curve.”

And fi­nally, par­ents should lower ex­pec­ta­tions of both how much kids should eat and how much they should try. When we move from ex­pect­ing chil­dren to try and then eat a lot of a new foods to ex­pect­ing chil­dren to look at, smell, touch, play with, lick or maybe, just maybe, take a tiny bite of new foods, kids are more likely to meet those ex­pec­ta­tions.

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