Ask the Pediatrician: How can parents get kids to try healthier foods?

Q: My kids are such picky eaters. How can I get them to try healthier options?

A: Picky eating in childhood, especially between 2 and 4 years old, is very common. It can cause many mealtime conflicts, with parents heavily invested in children eating their vegetables and children heavily invested in refusing to do so.

Recognizing that fussiness is normal and usually short-lived can make meals more enjoyable. A calm approach to picky eating can help kids get by and try a wider variety of foods. Here are some basic strategies to try:

• Eat family meals together whenever possible and model healthy and adventurous eating. Children often look at and adjust the habits of parents, older siblings, and peers. When the rest of the family eats balanced meals of fruits and vegetables, children are more likely to do the same.

• Follow regular and structured meals and snacks. Make it a rule that children sit at the table to eat without distractions and appliances.

• Let your child choose what and how much he eats from the offer. At the same time, avoid offering separate meals or snacks if they refuse to eat. Add at least one food to the meals and snacks that the child likes.

• Allow them to refuse or refuse food, but offer it again later. It can take kids 15-20 trying to like a new food. Repeated exposure can cause a rejected food to become a new favorite.

• Involve children in helping to select, grow and cook food. The more involved they are, the more likely they will eventually try the food.

You may also want to try these tips tailored for specific age and developmental stages:

During the pregnancy: Get into the habit of eating at least one unusual, new, or bitter food a few times a week. The flavors pass into the amniotic fluid, giving your unborn baby an early “taste” of food that he may be more willing to eat later. Plus, the more you try new foods, the more you’ll enjoy them and model your eating.

children’s shoes: Eating a wide variety of foods while breastfeeding can increase your infant’s exposure to those foods through breast milk. Making flavors more familiar will reduce the chances of your child rejecting them in solid foods.

Once you’ve introduced solids at about 6 months of age, offer one new food at a time, with a plan to add bitter veggies, fish, and a little spice from the get-go. Introduce foods with a variety of textures and scents. (Once all of a recipe’s ingredients are introduced, it’s fine to cook them together.) Babies have immature taste buds, which leave them open to eating just about anything in the first year of eating solid foods. When starting solids, make sure the food is soft and small enough to avoid choking.

toddler: Between the ages of 18 months and 2 years, many children begin to dislike unfamiliar foods, which is called “neophobia.” Go with the flow and also make it a habit to eat family meals together. Resist the urge to force a child to eat or engage in fights at mealtime. But don’t play to picky preferences either.

toddler: Involve preschoolers in food selection and preparation. Children are more likely to eat what they grow, choose or prepare. Preschoolers love vegetables from the garden in combination with a dipping sauce, sauce or nut butter.

School age: Help kids learn where their food comes from by growing a miniature garden. Plant easy-to-grow foods that the child might not otherwise try, such as spinach or bell peppers.

adolescence: Agree to eat family meals together at least 2 to 3 times a week. This makes a teen more likely to eat a balanced meal. In addition, research shows that shared family meals can strengthen family relationships and decrease the likelihood of risky behavior.

Assign your teen to occasionally help choose and prepare meals, which will help him develop cooking skills. Require the meal to include a protein, grain, fruit and vegetable, but otherwise avoid the urge to micromanage what your teen chooses.

A calm approach to picky eating can help kids get by and try a wider variety of foods.

A calm approach to picky eating can help kids get by and try a wider variety of foods. (Dreamtime/TNS)

dr. Natalie D. Muth is a pediatrician and registered dietitian practicing general pediatrics and the director of the WELL healthy living clinic at the Children’s Primary Care Medical Group in Carlsbad, California. She is also the author of “Family Fit Plan” and the co-author of “The Picky Eater Project.” For more information, visit HealthyChildren.org, the AAP’s parent website.

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