CHARLOTTE – Are you a parent stuck in the chicken nugget, mac-and-cheese, pizza vortex? Do you wonder how you can introduce healthier foods into your picky eater’s diet?
Natasia Tomlinson, a Novant Health pediatric dietitian, has some great strategies. Here is some of her advice on everything from establishing a good eating environment to inviting your children to cook with you.
First of all, why should you make changes at the dinner table? What exactly are the benefits to broadening your child’s appetite?
Getting a wide variety of food and nutrients naturally in their diet sets them up for a lifetime of success with long-term health, but it also helps them immensely when it comes to being social. As they get older and transition into school age and adolescence, they start to eat more meals outside of the home where they’re making their own decisions around what foods they’re eating. Maybe they’re eating at friends’ homes or on travel teams where they have catered meals. For a child who’s not a picky eater, those different eating environments are much less anxiety prone.
What’s your No. 1 advice for parents of picky eaters?
Don’t cater to the picky eater. Parents shouldn’t cook a separate meal for every person at the table. That doesn’t work. That’s only a temporary solution.
So where do you start?
Set up an optimal eating environment and eat without distractions. Sit at the dinner table and model good eating behavior. That means no toys, no TV, no tablets when it’s time to eat. Eating is for eating and enjoying conversations with others.
How can parents avoid getting into food ruts?
It’s normal for a child to have a limited palette and latch onto a few favorite foods. You should still offer a variety of food choices.
Should you offer some go-to foods with new ones?
I always recommend offering the picky eater the same meal the rest of the family is eating but to include at least one to two reliable foods. Those foods can be something as simple as a bread roll. It might take 10 to 20 exposures to a new food for that picky eater to decide it’s something he or she wants to try. This is not a quick process. It takes patience.
It can be hard to watch food go to waste. How do you handle that?
Food doesn’t necessarily have to even be on their plate. It can be at the table, and you can be modeling behavior of eating the food. Maybe the food they’re not interested in is broccoli. You’re scooping that onto your plate and eating it. Maybe you’re putting one small piece on their plate. But don’t put a whole portion on their plate that’s ending up in the trash.
So, one way to introduce new food is to eat it yourself?
Yes! If there are other children, like siblings, eating it, that’s even better. To see other children modeling behavior can be extremely helpful for a picky eater.
What are common mistakes parents make when it comes to encouraging children to explore new foods?
You want to keep the pressure, both negative and positive, to a minimum.
A lot of times when we think of pressure, we think of negative pressure: “Just take one more bite.” “Why won’t you try this?” or “Somebody made this special for you.” But pressure can also be positive, making a huge deal about, “Oh great job, you ate that, you tried it.” That’s still putting way too much focus on the act of eating, and it can make mealtimes extremely stressful for a child.
Should you just accept that sometimes children are going to go to bed hungry?
They may go to bed hungry, but they’re also really smart. If they only eat a few bites but you always give them a favorite snack later, they’ll realize “that’s my ticket to my favorite snack.” You don’t want to reinforce that behavior.
How big of a part does food presentation play for kids?
We definitely eat with our eyes before we eat with our mouths. That goes for everybody. Children are still learning and experiencing lots of foods. If you have a picky eater, try to make food fun. Present foods in an appealing way because it can help make your child interested in trying the new food. Another fun way to get them interested in new foods is inviting your child into the kitchen, to be hands on with food in a manner that doesn’t actually involve eating it.
What does that look like?
Maybe allowing your child to get messy with the food. That tactile involvement is part of the process of learning about trying new foods. Help them engage in food play using fruits and vegetables to make pictures and faces with foods. All of those are ways to help your child get more excited about new foods.
That might be something like a “rainbow dinner,” with fruits and vegetables of every color?
Yes, making a rainbow, making different animals. We’ve done butterflies. We’ve put fruits and vegetables onto little sticks to make different shapes. Sticks with little bugs. We’ve done all sorts of different things so there’s a tactile component and chance to play with the bright colors. Get your children out in the garden, if you have one, and have them help in the kitchen with an age-appropriate tasks. It could be something as simple as washing a vegetable when they’re little. As they get older, start to teach them knife skills. All of those are ways to help them get hands-on exposure to the food without applying that pressure of eating or tasting the food.
Does it help to keep foods separate and identifiable on the plate?
That’s totally a preference thing. Some children definitely do not like food combined together, so if you’re going to offer a mixed dish like, say, an entree, make sure you also have some separate side items that they can fall back on. But don’t be afraid of using strong flavors. Sometimes we wrongfully think that our picky eater needs more bland foods. Sometimes it’s exactly the opposite. Sometimes they want more flavorful food.
Jessica Seinfeld wrote a cookbook called “Deceptively Delicious” about disguising healthy foods into “kid-friendly” options. Do you believe in that?
I’m not a fan of trying to be deceitful in any way. Children are extremely smart, and they know what’s going on and they’re observant. Trust is really important between caregivers and children. If a child feels like they’re being lied to, that’s a really hard thing to repair. You can find new ways to present foods. You can serve vegetables, for example, raw, cooked, roasted, grilled, cooked or al dente, so it’s crunchier or cooked until it’s very soft.
I sometimes discuss how one food may taste differently. “You might really like a chicken nugget, but you might not like barbecue chicken” We take the concept and talk about carrots. “You might really hate a raw carrot, but you might really like a cooked carrot.”
Can kid-friendly recipes with photos of the food help?
Yes, get the kids involved in picking out recipes. I have a Disney-themed cookbook I use with kids in my appointments to flip through and pick out interesting recipes they might be willing to try and make with their families, which is fun for them because they recognize the characters. Being able to meal plan, meal prepare – that all starts from a very young age.
I’ve done activities with kids and their families where I’ll have them go to the grocery store together weekly and pick out a new fruit or vegetable to learn about and try. Then it’s the child’s job to learn everything he or she can about that fruit or vegetable, come up with a way to prepare it, and then the whole family tries it. There are lots of different ways to involve your child from start to finish with new food.