Tag Archives: nutrition

Picky Eaters

photo of child who doesn't want plate of vegetables

When I teach about nutrition for toddlers and preschoolers, I include a few tips about introducing new foods. Then parents  say “But I’ve got a really picky eater.” About 30 – 50% of parents of preschoolers describe their child as a picky eater!

So, this post will talk about how that may be just a normal toddler phase, plus lots of steps we can take to work on those challenges.

Start with Empathy

Parents will say “Will they ever not be so picky?” I turn this around on the parent, and ask them: “Are there foods that you know that other people may love, but that you just don’t like to eat? If you were out to lunch with a friend, and they kept insisting ‘no really, it’s good! Just try it!!’, how would that feel for you? Or if there’s a ‘weird food’ you’re not willing to try, would you want anyone to pressure you to eat it?”

I don’t think anyone necessarily outgrows being a picky eater. You could eat lots and lots of meals with me and never notice the ways in which I’m a picky eater. We could sit at many breakfasts and I would happily drink my tea or cran-apple juice, and happily eat pancakes, waffles, eggs. You might never notice that I NEVER drink coffee or orange juice and I virtually never eat bacon or sausage. And I never eat the really weird foods – my husband will try anything in any foreign country, but not me! We all have our preferences. But because I manage my own food choices, my friends don’t need to know or care about my preferences. But for our kids, since we’re making all their food choices for them, and we feel responsible for their diet, we keep hitting the wall with their preferences. It can be frustrating, but it’s also important to acknowledge that we may not be able to change them quickly.

But I do think everyone can learn to be more flexible, more adventurous, and can learn accommodations. But let’s start from this place of empathy and figure out how we can offer and encourage without pressuring or forcing the issue.

Relax a Little

Although we all benefit in the long run from a diet featuring a wide variety of foods, if your child goes through a picky stretch where they only want a limited selection, it will be OK.

Toddlers are figuring out independence and control, and are ripe for power struggles. If you turn food into a battle ground, no one wins! If you force a child to eat, they will eat less.

Know how much they need to eat

Babies grow so fast in the first year that they have very high caloric requirements. But then that growth slows down, so your toddler’s appetite will decrease. It is helpful to know how much they need to take in per day – often parents are worried, then discover their child is actually eating plenty.

A child age 1 to 3 needs about 40 calories per inch tall. (source) Another way to think about it is to think of serving sizes as one tablespoon per year of age. (source) At at one meal, a 3 year old might get 3 tablespoons each of peas, noodles, and chicken.

If your child is gaining weight well and has plenty of energy, that’s a good sign that they’re getting enough food.

How much variety do they need

Well, all of us would benefit from a widely varied diet of healthy foods. But, young children may naturally have a more limited range than adults. As long as they’re eating some protein, some calcium sources, and some good sources of fiber and healthy fats, they should be fine.

I had a nutritionist tell me informally that if a kid eats more than five types of food, she’s not too worried. If you’re concerned, ask your child’s doctor.

Get them Involved

Take your child grocery shopping with you, or to a farmer’s market. Let them choose the things they want to try. Let your child help you to prepare the food (scrub vegetables, stir the fruit salad) or set the table for a meal. If there’s a meal where you want them to try something new, let them choose their favorite familiar foods to accompany that new option. Offer choices – not “do you want a vegetable at this meal?” but “do you want broccoli or carrots at this meal?”

Role Model / Communal Meal

Make meal times relaxed and social. Serve the same food to everyone as much as possible. Eat your own food and talk about what you like about your food. If there’s something you are OK with eating, but don’t love, you can say that “I don’t love this, but I know it’s good for me, so I’ll eat some of it, then I’ll eat the other things that I like better.” Don’t talk to your child a lot about foods you don’t like or model picky eating.

Introducing the New Food

Give them a very small taster serving – like a single pea, or a shred of cheese. Allow them to touch it, sniff it, lick it – do whatever they need to do to feel comfortable trying it out. Respond positively to any attempts they make, but don’t pressure them into eating it all. If they choose not to eat it, say “OK, we’ll try again at another meal.” Wait several days before trying again. Plan to offer a new food several times before it’s fully embraced. The first few times, offer just one bite. Over time you can give them a full serving.

Use food bridges – think of something they already like – what new food is like that? Try that one before you try something that’s unlike any of their favorite foods. Think about textures, colors, and tastes. If they like mushy foods, they’ll prefer mashed potatoes to french fries. If they like crisp things, try kale chips and apple slices. If they don’t like green food, try carrots, cauliflower, sweet potato, jicama.

Many parents go for the technique of “hiding” vegetables – blending lots of veggies into spaghetti sauce or dip, or mixing grated carrots into other things. Some nutritionists recommend this, some say it’s better to teach them to like the whole food. If you have a super-picky eater, I wouldn’t recommend this – if your child doesn’t “trust” foods, this will just reinforce that.

It may help to try new foods at snack time when they’re hungry, and not at a mealtime when you’re hoping for the whole family to have a relaxing time together.

Make New Foods Fun

Make trying new foods a fun activity by documenting what faces your child makes when they try a new food. Try adding a dip – many kids will eat anything they can dip. Do taste tests, crunch tests, cut food into fun shapes, go on a food field tip to learn where it’s grown. (ideas here)

Stick to the Familiar in Unfamiliar Environments

When your child is on vacation, or otherwise outside of their normal routine, they may need familiar foods to calm and reassure them. When my daughter was in a picky phase, we took a vacation where she carried a small container of Kraft parmesan cheese to every meal, and if nothing else on the menu seemed OK to her, we’d just order noodles with butter and she’d sprinkle on her cheese, and everyone was happy. When we got back home, we worked on broadening her diet.

Sometimes Foods

If you make any food a “forbidden fruit” that only increases its appeal. Go ahead and have fast food, or ice cream, or candy, or whatever. But do it in moderation, and explain that it’s a ‘sometimes food.’ (We don’t keep ice cream in the house, where it would be tempting to have it more often, but we do go out to ice cream as a special family treat.) A friend of mine has the ‘strong food’ policy – if you’ve eaten some of the food that keeps you strong and healthy, then you can have treat foods. (But don’t sell the treat as the reward for eating the healthy food – that could imply the healthy food is the icky stuff you have to slog through to get to the good stuff.)

But do remember that snack foods are scientifically designed to push kids’ pleasure buttons with salty, sweet, fatty goodness. It’s hard for healthy foods to be as appealing. So, realize that it can be hard to go back from junk food to healthy food. (And I say this as a parent whose kid is addicted to Cheez-Its!)

Keep Trying

Kids tend to be pickier about new foods from age 2 to 5, an age when they may cling to familiar routines. As they get older, they make get more flexible. So once your child starts elementary school, try re-introducing some things they may have rejected in their toddler years. They may be more flexible now. As they move toward their tweens and teens, they may try anything their friends eat!

Beyond Picky

So, my first child ate everything easily. Of course he went through periods of having preferences, and he didn’t always love vegetables, but he was always pretty flexible. My second child was a typical “picky eater” kid and we used all the tips included here to get her to eat. She was especially picky about protein sources, so we had to be especially creative there. As she got older, she was able to articulate that lots of proteins upset her stomach, so now at 22, she’s a soy free vegan and eating an otherwise very diverse diet.

My third child… well, he’s a whole different level of picky eater. I’d been a parent for 17 years when he was born, and I was a parent educator, so I knew all this stuff about picky eaters and how to work with them, and believe me, I tried all these tips. And his diet is still very limited. So, if you’ve tried all these ideas and are feeling like you’re at the end of your rope, check out my other post on super tricky eaters.

Sources for more info:

 

 

 

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The Super Picky Eater

photo of a child disgusted with food

If you have a “typical” kid, just check out my basic overview of toddler nutrition. If you’re one of the 30 – 50% of parents of toddlers/preschoolers who would describe your child as a “picky eater” then check out and try my tips for picky eaters. But, if your kid is a whole other level of picky eater – where you’ve tried all those tips, and your kid still eats a very limited set of foods, then this post is for you.

And I’m here in solidarity with you! I could easily make a list for you of all the foods my 8 year old is willing to eat. And they’re specific – I can’t say he eats yogurt. I can say he eats yoplait brand only and only these flavors: strawberry, strawberry-banana, and blueberry. When I say he eats chicken mcnuggets, I don’t mean any kind of breaded chicken product, I mean ONLY the ones from McDonald’s (or Wendy’s in a pinch).

And if you’re judging me for feeding my kid McNuggets, then here’s the thing – it’s the only meat he has ever put in his mouth in pretty much his entire life. And if you’re judging me for that, well, then you’ve never lived with a super picky eater, and this is not the post for you.

Why are some kids super picky?

There can be a wide variety of reasons. A child with an extremely strong sense of smell may be overloaded while eating – a child with a very limited sense of smell may not enjoy food. A child who had a traumatic experience with choking may be very hesitant to eat after that. Children who have food sensitivities may not be able to articulate them or understand them – they just know that sometimes they feel icky after they eat so they just eat less.

Many extreme picky eaters are either autistic, or have anxiety, or have sensory issues. Or like my son, they may have all three of these challenges.

This blog post, written by an autistic nine year old has given me the best insight into “The Reasons [They] Don’t Like to Eat.

“Sometimes I eat something and it tastes nice; it is the right color and it feels nice and soft in my mouth. But then some days I eat what you tell me is the same and it isn’t the same… I get upset. You ruined it. … You damage it if it has sauce or potatoes on it. Then it is not nugget skins, but some weird thing my brain does not know. So, all nuggets are dangerous. And I get scared again.”

I totally see this with my son. He will love blueberries for a long time – but then he gets one bad blueberry – an under-ripe overly tart one, or an over-ripe squishy icky one. Then for weeks he has a hard time trusting blueberries again. He prefers processed packaged food to real whole foods, because Cheez-Its taste the exact same and have the exact same texture every time. He can trust them. Bananas are a risky proposition.

If you’re having a hard time understanding this, just think about one of your preferences. Maybe you like Coke but Pepsi is really not the same and you’re disappointed if you have to drink it. Or you really like your coffee with half-and-half and Splenda. And if you’re on a trip and they only have skim milk and sugar, it’s just not the same, and it throws your morning off a little. Now, put yourself in the shoes of an anxious child, who doesn’t have the perspective and flexibility you’ve gained from experience, and perhaps you can understand the upset?

If your child is old enough (maybe 5 or older?) try asking them open-ended questions to learn about what they like, what they don’t like, and what worries them about food. Understanding this can guide you in the next steps to take.

Can you force them to try foods?

I have to be honest that I have never tried to force my child to eat. With my older kids, I could do a little wheedling and nagging, and they’d give it a try. With my youngest, the nagging doesn’t work, and I’ve always had the sense that if I tried to force it, it would be bad.

There are plenty of examples of super picky eaters who will gag or vomit if you try to force them to eat something. Then later on, they’ll gag or vomit if that food is even in the same room with them, even if they’re not being pushed to eat it. And their food repertoire becomes even more restricted.

I don’t know if that would be the case with my son. I do think he would have big meltdowns, and I do think it would damage the trust he has in me, and I think it might make eating new foods even more stressful for him.

Encouraging Them to Try to Broaden their Eating

Be sure to check out the tips in my picky eaters post, plus:

Steps to Eating

When introducing a new food, tips will often say “offer just a few bites… expect your child to have to try something 7 or more times before they accept it.” For a super picky eater, we need to take even smaller baby steps. This Steps to Eating chart is helpful in describing those steps… can the child tolerate being in the same room as the food? Can that food be at the same table? On their plate, but not touching any of their other food? Are they willing to try smelling the food? Touching it with one finger? Licking it? Each step closer to eating it is progress!

Food Chaining

Another helpful tool is food chaining. Think of a food your child likes. Level 1 is to give them very similar foods – same taste and texture – for example, with my son, we’ve introduced Tyson chicken nuggets (yes, not the most healthy option, but very similar to McNuggets, but something we can have in the freezer at home). Level 2 is to vary the taste, but keep the texture – maybe dip the nugget in sauce? Level 3 is to maintain the taste but change the texture – so chicken strips made with whole chicken breast rather than the ground / reconstituted chicken in a nugget. Level 4 is to vary the taste and texture – breaded fish patty?

Slow and Steady Changes – Texture and Color

Some young children are very picky about texture. At some food clinics, they will puree all the child’s food, and they gradually move toward chunky purees, then eventually solid foods. Some kids will eat only crunchy foods – so parents try lots of the veggie chips, kale chips and so on. Eventually hopefully moving to carrots and apples for crunch.

Some children are picky about color. If a child preferred white food, they could start with 90% mashed potatoes and 10% sweet potatoes, and gradually increase the orange.

Many picky eaters like very bland foods (white noodles, white bread). But a few are sensory seekers and want very intense flavors – you may need to spice everything up.

Record Progress

Take notes on what they tried, and whether they liked it, and how much they tried. Comment on how much you appreciate their flexibility and willingness to try.

Have them rank things on a scale from 1 to 10. If it’s 5 or higher, encourage them to try it again a few times in the next week. If it’s lower than 5, don’t offer it again for quite a while till you’ve had successes with other foods. A reward system might increase their motivation.

Limit Sensory Input at Mealtimes

If a child is easily over-stimulated, eating is a LOT of sensory input. Try eating in a quiet, calm place without a lot of other stimuli. Don’t talk too much about the food – just put it there and allow them to explore it.

Familiar Food in Unfamiliar Environments

I only ask my child to try new things when he’s having a good day – we’re relaxed, hanging out at home, all is going well. But when we’re in a challenging situation, I make food as easy as I can. To understand why, read this quote from the blog post cited above:

“Sometimes people even want me to change rooms to eat… School does that. You want me to move to some place, sit down, and eat what you have made… No one told me I would smell different things, hear different voices and touch different stuff, and now you even want me to taste things? It is too much, so I just freeze.”

When my son is having challenges at school, I want to make sure his lunchbox is filled with all of his familiar favorite comfort foods and that it always meets his expectations. There are always 5 items – there’s always a yogurt tube, always cheesy crackers, always two fruits and always either a peanut butter sandwich or apple slices with peanut butter. And if we’ve run out of any of those things, I tell him when I pack his lunch, and I explain the substitution I’ve made. I want to be sure that lunch at school is something that re-grounds him, not upsets him. We can try for more food variety in all the other meals in his week. And when we go on vacations or to family camp, we pack protein drinks, protein bars, and peanut butter crackers. I know we can always find fruits and grains he will eat, but these are the ways I ensure he gets protein.

When should you seek help?

If your child is a super picky eater, you should already be talking to their doctor about it for advice and to monitor their weight gain and development.

Also, watch for physical signs of food intolerances or allergies. Many “picky eaters” are later found to have food sensitivities. So, if you see rashes or eczema, or your child has frequent diarrhea or constipation, or frequently complains of a sore tummy, talk with your doctor to see whether any kind of allergy testing or food elimination would be warranted.

If a child often gags or chokes or has problems swallowing, they might benefit from a “swallow study” or work with an OT or speech-language pathologist to build their eating skills and muscle coordination.

But here are some red flags that they may need additional support:

  • It’s getting worse – their list of accepted foods is getting smaller and smaller. Maybe it used to be 20 foods, and now it’s 10.
  • You believe your child would starve or be hospitalized before they’d eat foods they don’t like.
  • They will only eat if someone else feeds them. (In a child who should be old enough to feed themselves)
  • If their pickiness is limiting their life – for example, they can’t go on play-dates or sleepovers or eat out at a restaurant due to food limitations.

If this is the case, talk to your child’s doctors about your next steps.

More ideas

Nutrition for Toddlers and Preschoolers

photo of child eating wheat bread

When it comes to nutrition and toddlers, the most important thing to remember is: Your job is to decide what food to offer, when to offer, and where the child may eat. Your child’s job is to decide what to eat and how much.

What to Offer

Offer a variety of healthy choices – 2 to 3 items at each meal. Children often prefer foods they can feed to themselves. Many children prefer food as separate items – if the family is eating spaghetti, your child may want plain noodles, sauce on the side, and a meatball on the side. Offer food in unbreakable dishes with utensils the child can hold. Give milk or juice with meals, and offer water between meals.

To encourage your child to try new foods:

Offer a new food with familiar, well-loved foods. Try the food yourself, describing its texture, taste, and smell. Give a small portion to begin with (3 peas, 2 beans) so there’s less waste. Children may need to be offered a new food 10 – 15 times before they’ll try it, and the first few “tries” may be a lick, or a small taste, or holding it in their mouth then spitting it out. Over time, they will eat more of it. Involving your child in choosing and preparing a new food may get them more excited about eating it.

Be a good role model: eat healthy, try a variety of foods yourself, talk about healthy eating. Exercise, and have fun being active together.

When to Offer Food

Most young children eat three meals a day, plus two or three snacks. This helps them keep a stable blood sugar level (and thus a stable mood and energy level) throughout the day. Try not to let your child graze all day long. It is better to eat full meals and let the body rest/digest between meals. If your child whines about this, remind yourself that they won’t starve if they have to wait!

Also, don’t use food as a distraction every time you’re in the car, at the library, and so on. Try to develop other ideas for keeping them busy.

Where Your Child May Eat

Most experts recommend feeding your child only at the dining table or in the kitchen, rather than eating all around the house. They also recommend sitting and talking with your child, both for safety’s sake and as a great opportunity for building communication skills, and strengthening your relationship. Turn off TV’s and other screens and focus on time together.

What Your Child Chooses To Eat

Your child may be eating less than she did just a few months ago. It is normal for a toddler’s appetite to decrease, as their rate of growth slows after age one. You will notice that some days your child barely touches his food, and other days he seems to eat non-stop. This is fine. Look at how much food and how much variety they take in over the course of a week, not just one day.

Don’t force your child to eat. Toddlers are trying to assert their independence, and it is easy for food to become a power struggle.

Supplements: consult with your child’s doctor. If a child has a well-rounded diet, none may be needed. In Seattle’s non-sunny climate, a common recommendation is 400 IU / day of vitamin D. Omega 3 fatty acids are recommended by many naturopaths. If your family is vegetarian, or vegan, pay special attention to vitamins B12, D, riboflavin, calcium, and protein.

Reducing Risk of Choking:

Children should always sit when eating. There should be an adult nearby. Avoid foods that are hard to chew (steak, jerky, stringy celery), small and round (hard candy, popcorn; grapes – cut these in half; carrot slices, hot dogs, chunks of cheese– cut these into thin sticks); spoonfuls of peanut butter (OK to spread thin on things). All parents and child care providers should learn choking rescue, just in case: www.youtube.com/watch?v=kOWwyJEFiPo

How Much Should a Toddler Eat

Here’s a chart that lists recommended daily servings for toddlers of each food group (with definitions of appropriate serving size), total calories needed, and other key info about healthy eating.

Infant and Toddler Forum has a really helpful site showing what a toddler size portion of food looks like, whether that’s 4 French fries, or one-quarter of an apple, or 4 ounces of yogurt.

Read more about making mealtimes pleasant.

Read about tips for picky eaters and for super picky eaters.