Strategies for enticing the picky eater

When it comes to food struggles, parents never win. Nutritionists urge them to persist, be patient, and to lighten up.

For some parents, there is nothing more satisfying than offering food to a child. And there's nothing more frustrating than when their kid doesn't eat.

In the "old" days, every "good" mother made sure that her child ate a healthy helping every day from each and every food category: dairy, fruit, green vegetables, yellow vegetables, starch, meat, fish, poultry, eggs.

Mom would spend hours feeding her child green beans, carrots, beef, and bananas, telling stories with each bite, flying imaginary airplanes into hangars, driving cars into make-believe garages.

Today, most parents don't have time to make sure their child has a perfect balance of food at every meal. Many kids are "problem" eaters. All they want are French fries and chicken nuggets.

When Jen Singer's son was 5 years old, his diet consisted of four major food groups: breads and cakes, apple juice, Girl Scout cookies, and anything shaped like a cartoon character. Now age 8, he remains a fussy eater, and recently declared that he would no longer eat peanut butter and jelly.

"No more PB&J? – I give up," says the creator of www.MommaSaid.net. "That pretty much leaves pretzel sticks and juice. Last year, he gave up chicken nuggets."

Finicky eaters are not alike, says Jorj Morgan, author of "At Home in the Kitchen" (www.jorj.com). Some eat only white things (visual eaters). Others like only crunchy food (texture eaters). Some eat just food groups like pizza and spaghetti (flavor eaters). Others won't accept anything that smells too strong (aroma kings). Some prefer only separated things (organized eaters).

"Picky eaters are difficult because feeding them is like 50 percent of your job as a mom," says Ms. Morgan. "You get focused on forcing them to eat healthy stuff and before you know it, mealtime is battle time and the whole family suffers."

Mealtimes are very stressful for Amy Dodds, an Arlington, Va., mother of two picky eaters, Katie (age 6-1/2) and Ryan (age 5-1/2). Ms. Dodds caters to her children's limited likes, but she dislikes being a short-order cook.

"We usually prepare separate food for the kids," says Dodds. "If we're having spaghetti, we'll give them plain noodles. Now Katie rejects foods that she usually likes if she detects that it's somehow 'different' – even if it's the exact same thing she normally will eat. This drives us crazy because we've gone out of our way to prepare something we know she likes and then she won't eat it. When we go to dinner at friends' or relatives' houses, we bring separate food for our kids because we know they won't eat what's being served. Our pediatrician told us that it's got to stop, and we're getting ready to bite the bullet and start playing hardball with dinner."

Why are some kids such fussy eaters?

"Unfortunately, once a child has refused a food a couple times, many parents make the mistake of not making the food anymore or, just as bad, making the food for the rest of the family and making something else – 'short-order cooking' – for the child who has refused it," says Karen Collins, nutrition adviser to the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.

Most food struggles are really power struggles, adds Joanne Watson, a family physician at the Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.

"Kids don't have much control in their lives. We tell them when to get up, what to eat, what to wear, when to go to bed. This is one thing they can control – what goes in them," Dr. Watson says. No child ever starved or became ill from being picky, she says, except for those struggling with eating disorders.

It's the parents' job to provide their children with a variety of healthy foods and let them decide how much and what to eat. But according to Ann Litt, a nutritionist in Bethesda, Md., and author of "The College Student's Guide to Eating Well on Campus," parents are also responsible for establishing appropriate places where kids can eat (in the kitchen, not in the family room). Parents should eat with their children when possible, and they should help structure regular mealtimes. "It's not just healthy foods.... I believe parents should show children where junk foods belong in a healthy diet," says Ms. Litt.

Most experts agree that it's not one meal or one day of food that matters, but what a child eats over the long term. Parents should not micromanage each meal, especially with younger children, Litt says. It's what they eat over the course of a week that matters.

When it comes to food struggles, parents never win and end up with kids who do not have a good relationship with food. "Children who are bribed, forced, or cajoled to eat veggies, for instance, are less likely to eat those foods on their own," says Litt.

Studies show that it takes 11 to 15 exposures for a child to accept a new food. So parents should not conclude that after just one or two rejections the child will never accept that food. "Children need to see a food 10 or so times before they want to try it; taste it 10 times or so before eating a serving, and often still don't like it as much as they will eventually," says Ms. Collins. "Research shows that children's interest in a food is most strongly increased by watching adults they like eat a food and obviously enjoy it."

Parents tell Madelyn Fernstrom it drives them crazy when their child eats peanut butter and jelly for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. "There's nothing wrong with that," says Ms. Fernstrom, an associate professor and director of the Weight Management Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "A fruit or veggie sticks and a glass of milk [plain or chocolate] rounds it out. It cannot be a battle, since the parent will always lose with food refusal by the child."

Most pediatricians recommend introducing no more than one new food over a period of a couple of weeks. "It doesn't matter if it is one every week or one every five days," says Litt. "The point is ... parents should not feel like there is a race to get several new foods into the diet of an 11-month-old."

The bottom line, Watson says, is for parents to relax and give their children reasonable choices. But don't buy into the restaurant syndrome – everybody always gets what he or she likes.

"Part of raising healthy eaters is attitude," says Litt. "Parents should not feel that they are evaluated as good parents if they have a kid who eats broccoli and bad parents if their kid loves nuggets. Too much emphasis on this creates tension around the table."

"Remember, your child's tastes will change as she grows," says Morgan. "The tomato she hates today may be her favorite food when she is 12."

Some tips for managing a picky eater

Madelyn Fernstrom is director of the Weight Management Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

1. Start young. Toddlers should be offered a variety of foods. If they refuse something, introduce a small amount every few months. Mix a new fruit or veggie with a familiar one.

2. Talk with your child. Offer a taste and encourage him or her to be "an adventurous eater." Ask what it is about the food that is "bad" – color, texture, the way it feels in their mouth, taste – and respect your child's opinion. Some things may seem gross to them that do not to you.

3. Vary your preparation. Many kids won't touch cooked veggies but enjoy them raw. Same with fruit. Add a dip for fun and entertainment. Peanut butter works for both fruit and veggies. Try honey for apples.

4. Freeze some fruit. Grapes are great frozen. (But cut them in small pieces for toddlers to avoid choking hazards.) Put a small banana on a popsicle stick – dip in melted chocolate first, if you like – and freeze it.

5. Mix some puréed vegetables into a tomato sauce and serve with pasta.

6. Try to identify a few nutritious foods your child likes and learn to live with those. Willingness to eat one fruit or one veggie is a start. Don't push too hard. Variety is more important to the parent.

Karen Collins is nutrition adviser to the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.

1. Start offering nutritious foods right from the start. Many parents have the idea of a range of foods that young children won't eat and think they will start to enjoy them at age 9 or 10. Studies suggest that this is too late to start. (Not that you shouldn't try past a certain age, but if you start while kids are young, you may get better results.)

2. Many parents serve portions that overwhelm children. Better to serve smaller portions and let them ask for more.

3. When a child has been involved in shopping for, planning, and preparing a food, there is a better chance they will eat and enjoy it. It can also be fun to tie it to a story, country, or culture they have read about or seen in a movie.

4. Ellyn Satter, a registered dietitian and counselor, has a terrific approach in her book, "How to Get Your Kid to Eat, But Not Too Much." The division of responsibility she suggests is particularly effective, both in the short term and in laying a good foundation for the longer term: Parents decide what is served and when it is time to eat; kids decide how much to eat. Getting involved in a power struggle over eating is never a winning situation for a parent.

5. If parents simply make sure there is something nutritious at each meal that they are fairly confident their child will eat, they can relax and enjoy meals. Do not become overwhelmed trying to make sure a perfect balance is eaten at every meal.

6. Remember that there is no perfect food that must be eaten. If there is a certain food, or category of foods, that a child rejects, often alternatives can be found that supply those nutrients. (For example, serve a wide variety of fruit, if vegetables are a tough sell.)

Best-ever chicken fingers

4 (6- to 8-ounce) skinless, boneless chicken breasts
3/4 cup bread crumbs
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon paprika
Salt and pepper to taste
1 stick butter (1/2 cup)
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

1. Put each breast between two pieces of plastic wrap and then use a mallet to pound to about 1/2-inch thickness. Cut into long strips.

2. Combine the bread crumbs, basil, paprika, salt, and pepper in a shallow bowl.

3. Melt the butter in a microwave oven on low heat in a shallow bowl. Stir the Parmesan cheese into the butter.

4. Take each chicken breast strip and dip it first into the butter mixture, and then into the bread crumb mixture. Lay the chicken strips in a baking dish. Drizzle any remaining butter over top.

5. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes or until the chicken is browned and cooked through.

6. Serve with marinara or pizza sauce for dipping.

Serves 6

Source: 'At Home In The Kitchen,' by Jorj Morgan

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