by Andrea Flagg, Co-founder/Moderator Nanny Alliance of NY & NJ
Growing up I was a very picky eater so I have always been able to relate and sympathize with the “label”. Since experiencing it myself and caring for many children that fall into the category of being “picky eaters” I have learned:
Young children like to binge on one food at a time~
Some days they may only want to eat fruits or dairy and then vegetables the next. Erratic eating habits for young children are as natural as mood swings. Expect that some children will eat well one day and practically nothing the next. Toddlers from one to three years need between 1,000 and 1,300 calories a day, yet they may not consume anywhere near that amount every day. Many experts suggest focusing on a nutritionally-balanced “week”, not a balanced “day”.
Offer age appropriate portions~
With my previous charges only putting a small portion of food on their plate or cutting up their food into tiny child age appropriate pieces has worked well and helped to avoid overwhelming them with a large amount of food all at once. More than not, they ask for seconds. I also strongly believe in putting down a child’s plate of food and seeing what happens. I never tell them they have to eat two bits of this or finish their entire plate before they can leave the table. Of course I want them to eat all of their veggies, so many times I will give them first, telling them the rest of the meal is not quite ready yet. Usually they are hungry and eat all the veggies before I serve the rest of their meal. I always let them decided how much they want to eat- as only they can gauge their hunger and if they are full or not.
Make sure they have a comfortable seat~
Many times getting a little one to sit still for a meal can create a challenge. I’ve found that one of the main reasons a small child does not like to sit still at the family table is that their feet dangle. More than not, I’ve always seen them be able to focus more on their meal when they are sitting at their own little table with chairs that allow their feet to touch the floor. (If a smaller table is not available, putting a step stool or phone books on which they can rest their feet has been helpful.)
Sometimes my charges would ask for a hotdog, pizza, pasta in the morning and cereal, pancakes, or waffles for lunch or dinner. Since young children can’t tell time, they are not able to distinguish between breakfast, lunch, and dinner; therefore those meals have little meaning to a young child. I’ve always felt it was better to let them have the hotdog, etc. when they wanted, than for them to not eat anything at all. As long as a child eats a balanced diet I feel it’s not important at what times a certain food is eaten.
Respect the child~
Every child is different, so is each child’s appetite, or lack of one. Young children tend to eat only when hungry. If a child is not hungry, it’s no use to force a meal or bribe them to take two bites of this or that. It will only ignite or reinforce a power struggle over food and that eating is an unpleasant experience.
Here are some tips to try to get picky eaters to expand their palate:
Drink the meal:
Some children are more apt to be drinkers than eaters. Try making a smoothie by mixing milk (usually a child’s first pick for a drink) with their favorite fruit. If you add in wheat germ, and yogurt they usually can’t tell.
Family and Friends help to set a good example:
Let the child see you eating and enjoying healthy foods. When trying to be a good role model, actions speak louder than words! Invite over a friend who is the same age or slightly older whom you know “likes to eat.” Children love to imitate each other, so hopefully this trick will inspire them to try new things.
Help them to make food choices by having the food easily accessible:
Create a child’s own shelf space by reserving a low shelf in the refrigerator for a variety of your their favorite (nutritious) foods and drinks. Whenever the child requests a snack, open the door for the child to select. This tactic also enables children to eat when they are hungry, an important step in acquiring a healthy attitude about food.
Let them help prepare meals:
Children are more likely to eat food that they personally have been able to help with. Let them select fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods at the grocery store. If you can grow a garden! At home let them help prepare the food, any simple task will be of benefit; i.e., washing the food, stirring a batter, placing food on a baking sheet or in a pot are all important parts of preparing a meal and will help them feel a part of the meal process.
Here are important things to remember about picky eaters…
When feeding children expect inconsistency~
For young children, what and how much they are willing to eat may vary daily. This can mainly be due in large part to their desire of independence, and eating is an area where they know they are in control. So don’t be surprised if a child eats a large plateful of food one day and practically nothing the next. Expect that some days they may adore broccoli and out of the blue completely refuse it the next. Also expect that young children may want to feed themselves at one meal and then want to be totally catered to at another. The more you allow your mind-set to simply roll with these mood swings, and don’t take them personally, the more enjoyable meals will be, as this too is a phase and will pass!
Somewhere between a child’s second and third birthday they become set in their ideas on just about everything – including the way food is prepared. Expect food fixations. If the peanut butter must be on top of the jelly and you put the jelly on top of the peanut butter, be prepared for a protest. It’s not easy to reason with an opinionated two-year-old. Better to learn to make the sandwich the child’s way. Don’t interpret this as being stubborn. Toddlers have their own ideas regarding the order of things in their world. Any alternative many times is simply unacceptable to them.
Here are some more things to keep in mind:
*Create a meal time routine.
Serve meals and snacks at about the same times every day. Hold off the juice, milk and snacks for at least one hour before meals. When a child comes to the table hungry, they are most likely to be more motivated to eat.
*Be patient with new foods.
Young children like to touch or smell new foods, and may put tiny bits in their mouths and then take them back out again. Many children need repeated exposure to a new food before they actually take the first bite, keep offering and hoping for the best!
*Minimize distractions while eating meals.
Turn off the television during meals, and don’t allow books or toys at the table. If you are running all over the house doing chores, making phone calls, washing dishes, vacuuming you can’t model good eating habits. Always try to sit with the children and model good table manners while they eat.
*Don’t offer dessert as a reward.
Withholding dessert sends the message that dessert is the best food, which may only increase a child’s desire for sweets. A better plan is to select one or two nights a week as “dessert nights”, and skip sugary desserts the rest of the week — or redefine dessert as fruit, yogurt or other healthy choices.
*If all else fails…. be a little sneaky about getting the most healthy foods into their diet.
Add chopped broccoli or green peppers to spaghetti sauce, top cereal with fruit slices, mixing in pureed fruit into pancake/waffle batter or mixing grated zucchini and carrots into casseroles and soups are all an excellent way to add more nutrition.
If you’re concerned that picky eating is compromising a child’s growth and development or if certain foods make your child ill, consult their doctor. In the meantime, remember that a child’s eating habits won’t change overnight — however, the small steps you take each day can help promote a lifetime of healthy eating!
So what foods have the most nutrient density?
Brown rice and other grains
Here are two excellent books to learn more:
Coping with a Picky Eater by: William G. Wilkoff, M.D.
Brain Food for Kids: by Nicola Graimes
Andrea Flagg has been a professional career nanny in Bergen County, New Jersey for over 8 years. She specializes in the care, development and education of infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers. She received her Nanny Credential thru the International Nanny Association (INA) in May of 2008.
She is co-founder and Moderator of Nanny Alliance of NY & NJ, a nanny support group founded in 2005 for all nannies in the Metro NY/NJ/CT area.
Andrea also volunteers as the Research Editor for Be the Best Nanny Guide, and assists in researching content for their monthly polls. In addition, she created a Yahoo Group for Nanny Support Group Leaders in Nov. of 2005, and acts as Co-Moderator for Nanny Island .
Andrea is a member of NANC, National Association for Nanny Care, and is part of their NannyPalooza Conference Planning Committee, and has been an active member on Nanny Network since 2001.
Her passion is to educate the nannies she meets, as well as the public, regarding best nanny practices. Her sincere desire is for all children to receive quality care.
Stephanie over at the Best Nanny Newsletter also has a great post by Brenda Nixon on her blog today about picky eaters.
Feeding Finicky Toddlers