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How to Tame the Picky Eater

Bhavna Arora, M.D.

Is your child a picky eater? Is it only hot dogs or chicken nuggets? Most of us have battled with our children over healthy food choices. I had an especially picky eater but with patience and perseverance and a few strategies, she has come a long way. That makes me pretty confident you could try the same tactics I did and tame your picky eater. Ready to give it a shot? Here are my tips:

Do not force your child to eat. Your child will not starve! Meal time should be fun and family time. Power struggles over food only lead to stress, anxiety leaving both you and the child often in tears. Give small reasonable portions at meals. If you are concerned about your child’s growth and nutrition consult with your doctor.

Model healthy eating. Eating as a family helps you bond with each other and is also an opportunity to model healthy eating. Children are more likely to eat healthy if they see their parents doing it.

Ask your children for input on the weekly dinner menu. This of course applies more to older children. I always ask my children for one dinner request for the week. That way they feel that they had some input and are less likely to complain about the other meals. The meals they request may not be “healthy” but the others will be.

Encourage them to try everything. I tell all of my little patients and kids that they have to try everything at least once and that they have to try something at least 20 times before they like it. You can even have an incentive chart and encourage them to try at least one new vegetable or food a week. Keep a count of how many times they try it and give little rewards if they reach their goal. One of the sayings in our home is “you don’t know if you like it until you try it.”

Have your child help. Children are more likely to eat foods you give them if they are involved in the process. Have them with you when grocery shopping and cooking as much as you can. My picky eater only started eating Paninis after I recruited her help.  She helped make the basil pesto and assemble the Paninis.

Make it fun. One of our favorite fun events is burrito night. The kids love assembling their own burrito and picking out what they want on it. It gives them a sense of autonomy. Come up with different ideas to keep the children engaged.

Do not make separate meals for everyone. Everyone in our house knows “you get what you get and you don’t get upset.” Encourage your child to eat the meal that is given and stay at the table. Do not give in and offer other foods!

Get them active. Work up their appetite and take them out walking, running, biking. If they have trouble with stamina, remind them that eating healthy and eating the right foods will give them more energy and strong muscles.

Earlier the better. Introduce different flavors and vegetables early and be persistent.

Be creative. You can put in pureed carrots in spaghetti sauce, pureed butternut squash in mac n’ cheese. I always encourage putting vegetables by themselves on their plate as well. It can take a while to get your picky eater to where you want them. In the meantime, sneak in the veggies where you can!