Exercising Patience and Creativity for the Picky Eater

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At a couple of recent PTA events, the question of picky eating came up several times -- "My son won't eat vegetables," and "My daughter won't eat fruit except strawberries but only if smothered in chocolate." If this sounds familiar, you are not alone.

First and foremost, kids need to feel that they aren't forced to eat. Dinner should be a relaxing experience. Some find it more successful to offer vegetables/fruit at the table, along with other foods, in a bowl they can self-serve. Some kids need multiple exposures including touching, smelling, and even putting the food in their mouth and taking it out again before they'll even take a bite. That's ok. Exposure to "new" foods can take time, so be patient.

Even if they pass on eating the food, seeing it at the table makes it more familiar. They are more likely to eat it if parents are modeling it, and again, they don't feel forced. Ellyn Satter is a dietitian who is an expert on this subject and talks about the division of responsibility. "The parent is responsible for what, when, where. The child is responsible for how much and whether."

There are a lot of other ideas to make fruits and vegetables more enticing.

  • Take kids to the farmer's market and have them pick out their own.

  • Have them help in the kitchen.

  • Roast vegetables rather than sauté or steam - vegetables caramelize, release their natural sugars, and taste better.

  • Smoothies - create some sweet berry/mango/pineapple smoothies. Then start adding greens to it and give it a fun name like "leprechaun smoothie."

  • Start with the least bitter of the greens (such as spinach rather than kale).

  • Some kids are "super tasters" and texture and strong smells are a real turn off. They might be more open to vegetables if they are raw, and have a nice ranch dip to go with it.

  • If parents have time to blend vegetables and mask them into marinara sauce on pasta, there is no harm in that. Ideally, you want them to eat the right food but temporarily, it'll give parents peace of mind.

  • Nutrition education - educating a child through a healthy cooking class or fun workshop that includes nutrition education can make a big impact.

Children want to do right by their own bodies. Remember, they have so little choice and freedom over their lives and sometimes food is the only way for them to exercise some control. Give up the struggle, educate them on what will serve their bodies and what won't, model it, then let go and trust them.