One of the most frustrating aspects of parenting young children can be the dinner table. Frequent outbursts of "I don't like that" may tempt you to surrender to your child's demands. Don't. Your child is simply exerting his independence, behavior that is perfectly normal.
Although mealtime can be difficult, relax. Focus on your child's overall eating pattern, not just that one meal. It's also important to keep trying. Research suggests it may take at least 10 offerings (and tastes) before a child will accept a new food. But most parents offer new foods only three to five times before they give up.
Some children may engage in food jags, when they insist on eating the same food over and over again. Often this is a white food, such as buttered noodles or macaroni and cheese. Serving their favorite food is OK if you also include other foods alongside for variety.
If your child rejects most vegetables, don't worry. In many cases there are fruits that provide a similar nutritive profile. Most kids WILL eat fruit. And don't be afraid to add a small amount of fat to vegetables for better acceptance. Sometimes plain steamed broccoli just won't cut it. But steamed broccoli that's topped with a cheesy sauce, a little butter or even some grated cheese is tasty enough for your child to eat. Some parents might balk at this because they think it's not healthy, but it's less healthy not to eat any vegetables at all.
Or roast vegetables in your oven or on the grill. Roasting turns the vegetables' natural starches into sugars. Even the most ardent vegetable haters might enjoy them this way.
Eat as a family whenever possible and have fun at the table. Share the day's experiences and enjoy each other's company, rather than overemphasizing the clean plate or making hollow threats of "no dessert."
In a study published in the January 2007 issue of the journal Appetite, pediatric researcher Joan K. Orrell-Valente found that a majority of parents of young children try "to get children to eat more during meals," which may be socializing their children to eat more than they normally would. This is problematic with our increasingly sedentary society. She also found that refusal to eat sometimes results from pressure tactics and threats to withdraw play privileges, or from reasoning and offer of play rewards.
Here are some tips to ease the way to your child eating a healthful diet:
Get kids involved with shopping for and preparing meals. Invite them into the kitchen to contribute, and they'll forget what they're eating.
Skip labeling your child as a picky eater. Respect her food preferences. Allow your child to choose and reject foods, just as you do.
Resist becoming a short-order cook or you'll run yourself ragged. Serve at least one food you know your child likes at each meal.
Your child will be more accepting of vegetables when he's exceptionally hungry. As you're preparing dinner, put out some carrot or celery sticks. Or try sugar snap peas, edamame or green pepper strips. There's no rule that says a vegetable has to be cooked.
Offer new foods at the start of a meal. Again, that's when children are most hungry. After that, serve mostly familiar (and favorite) foods.
Cut foods into interesting shapes, like triangles, and arrange them attractively on the plate. Where appropriate, serve foods with toothpicks. Give them foods to dunk, such as little trees (broccoli) with ranch dip, baked chips or carrots with salsa, or apples or celery sticks and peanut butter (or other nut butters.)
Snacks are OK, but they should supplement a meal, not replace it. Offer snacks two hours or more before meals. This will ensure your child will be hungry at mealtime.
Many children prefer recognizable foods and simple preparation. If that's the case, reserve some ingredients for a mixed dish and serve them separate. Your child can then assemble the meal the way she wants to.
Extreme temperatures can turn kids off. Let hot foods cool down and cold foods warm up a bit before serving them.
Encourage your child to "taste" the food, but say they don't have to actually swallow it. This will often acquaint him enough with it so he will eat the food.
Christine M. Palumbo is a registered dietitian in private practice in Naperville. All three of her children were picky eaters. She can be reached at PalumboRD@aol.com or (630) 369-8495.
Preheat oven to 450° F. Brush vegetables with extra virgin olive oil or place in a plastic bag, add a tablespoon or so of oil and shake to mix well. Take a nonstick baking sheet or line a sheet with parchment paper or foil and place the vegetables on it. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt and a little black pepper, if desired. Roast at 450° F in a preheated oven, or on your outdoor grill, until they are tender when pierced with a fork, but still hold their shape (about 20 minutes.) Remove from the oven and transfer the vegetables to a platter. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Mix of 4 vegetables such as eggplant, asparagus, carrots, sweet potatoes, winter squash, zucchini, red, yellow and green bell peppers, onions or mushrooms, cut into uniform pieces, about 1-1/2 inches long and 1/2 inch thick. Allow your children to choose the Vegetables.
1 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, as needed 1/2 teaspoon salt Black pepper, to taste