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Ages and Stages: picky eaters

My son likes Brussels sprouts, broccoli, green beans and jicama, but it took us a very long time to get him to eat anything green or crunchy. The downhill slide began when his father offered him a chicken nugget from a fast food place. A few months later, I realized that I had a kid who was quickly headed into the picky eater category. 

Jeremy Byrd, a physician with GHS Heritage Pediatrics and Internal Medicine, and Olivia Whitaker, a registered dietitian with Bon Secours St. Francis Health System, are experts at getting children to develop healthy eating habits. Both said getting children involved in the process of selecting, preparing and then eating their veggies can help develop good habits.

At around ages 2 – 5, some children can become selective eaters. Suddenly, they no longer enjoy the texture, the color, the temperature or even the smell of foods they once ate. Byrd said this is a developmental stage and specific to each child. The trick is to keep offering healthy foods, as it can take 8 – 10 tries to really determine if a child does not like a certain food, he said. 

Making dinner a healthy habit where vegetables and other healthy foods are routinely served sets the expectation for children that everybody in the family will eat a healthy meal together. It prioritizes not just the kids, but the health of the whole family.

“Parents should not be short order cooks and dinner is not a time for arguments,” Whitaker said. 

Byrd agreed that making dinner – or any meal shared together – a slower time where everybody has a small contribution gives children ownership of the meal and increases the chances that they will eat healthier. 

“The goal is to slow down so your child’s stomach can communicate to the brain,” he said. 

Byrd suggests getting children to buy into healthy meals by adding vegetables to things they already eat. Talking about the tomatoes, peppers, onions and other ingredients that go into a good sauce helps little ones understand why they need to eat the “go” foods and not the “whoa” foods. Using a vegetable spiralizer, you may even be able to replace the pasta with vegetables in no time. 

In the meantime, don’t give up. Keep offering the food in a variety of ways. 

“Try steamed broccoli one day,” Whitaker said. “Then roasted broccoli another. Then try it sautéed. Even try it raw.”

If your child will not budge on the hot dogs and chicken nuggets, Whitaker suggests trying healthier alternatives, such as homemade baked nuggets and fries or hotdogs that are low in sodium and served on a whole wheat bun. Add a veggie as a side. 

My son still is not keen on kale, but he has recently admitted to liking artichokes and wants to try beets. We keep trying new things, which is exactly what Byrd and Whitaker recommend. Curiosity comes naturally to children and letting them test out new things in the kitchen can lead to a very healthy eater.

Tips for getting picky eaters to eat their veggies – and like them, too

Byrd and Whitaker offered ideas on how to get those picky eaters to gobble up veggies and other foods in no time:

·      Byrd likes the idea of allowing them to dip their veggies into small cups of sauces like salad dressing or hummus. Children have the ability to decide how much to put on each bite. As long as parents do not add more to the cup, it can be a healthy snack.

·      Whitaker suggests having kids give the veggies fun names. Instead of boring old carrots, they now have “crunchy crispy carrots or bold broccoli.” Allowing them to do the naming helps children look at the food being offered and take ownership of the name, which then gives them the buy-in they need like a new vegetable.

·      Offer a choice between two vegetables. Whitaker suggests that parents should offer a choice such as “Brussels sprouts or carrots” and steer clear of questions that leave an opening for vegetable versus non vegetable.

·       Byrd recommends mixing a vegetable into a fruit or juiced smoothie. Making a healthy green shake together allows children to touch, smell, hear and then taste the food. By involving them in a quick drink, they associate healthy foods with fun.

·      If you have the time and space, grow a garden and have your child help out. “Knowing they have helped in the garden often gives kids the ownership they need to try something new,” Byrd said. Even a tomato plant in a pot can be a novel learning and eating experience for kids.

Try these sites to learn more about healthy serving sizes for children:

·     My Plate Preschoolers

·     My Plate Handout for Kids at Home

·     Fruit Servings Table for all ages

·     Vegetable Servings Table for all ages

·     Grains Servings Table for all ages

·     Protein Serving Table for all ages