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As a concerned mom, you want the best for your child. Part of that is giving her good nutrition, so having a picky eater can make mealtime a real challenge. Picky eating can be a phase, a reaction to stress or simply a super-sensitive palate. Helping your child eat better doesn't mean she has to eat three perfect meals a day, though. There are ways to help your discerning diner without power struggles, tears or wasted food.
Know the Basics
Picky eating in kids is very common. It doesn't mean that you're not a great cook, a good mom or that you should have made your own organic baby food. Mayo Clinic staff agree, "If children's nutrition is a sore topic in your household, you're not alone. Many parents worry about what their children eat—and don't eat. However, most kids get plenty of variety and nutrition in their diets over the course of a week." Some kids will pass through a picky eating phase in just a few weeks or months. If they continue to refuse food, investigate what it is about certain foods that they dislike. Sensitive kids can have a negative response to certain textures like "smooth," "crunchy" or "soft." If this is the case, try to offer at least one "texture-approved" food at each meal. If there has been a recent disruption in your family life, know that some kids will become temporarily picky about food as a way to exert control over something.
Sticking to a food routine can help build natural hunger cues. If a kid gets meals and snacks at the same times daily, the brain will eventually send hunger cues to the body, like a rumbling tummy or salivation. Staff at the MayoClinic.com suggest, "Serve meals and snacks at about the same times every day. Provide juice or milk with the food, and offer water between meals and snacks. Allowing your child to fill up on juice or milk throughout the day might decrease his or her appetite for meals."
Ditch the Power Struggles
When parents and kids face off over food, no one wins. Dr. Randy Cale, of TerrificParenting.com, says, "There are almost always power struggles that evolve around food and the consumption of food. At minimum, tremendous amounts of parental energy is devoted to what is or is not eaten." You can side-step food battles by serving one meal for everyone and allowing kids to decide whether they'll eat the meal or how much they'll consume. Serve small portions and serve them repeatedly. Some kids need to taste a new food up to 15 times before they will accept it. Give kids a sense of control and choice by allowing them to decide when and how much they eat. The flip side to this freedom of choice is that if your child doesn't eat what you serve, there will be no substitutes or snacks.
Of course, it can be hard to watch your kid refuse a meal and go hungry. Dr. Cale reassures, "They will readily survive an occasional night here and there without an evening meal. You must trust that the natural learning processes of nature will begin to take hold in the weeks ahead. When your children learn that there will be no fights over food and that no other options are available after dinner, the hunger that they experience eventually becomes a powerful teacher and instructor." A kid's natural hunger can help her overcome hesitation about having the "right foods" at every meal.
Bring Back the Fun
Sometimes food battles can make you forget that food is not just about nutrition. Try to focus on the pleasures of food; picking out new foods, cooking together and connecting with others at the table. Bring your picky eater to the store and let her choose a fruit, a vegetable and a dairy product that she wants to try. If it's a new food, help her find a recipe that you can prepare together. If your child is little, ask your picky eater to be your "kitchen helper." If she's a bit older, challenge her to bring new foods and recipes to the table. You may find that you both get re-energized and start looking forward to eating together again.