By Danielle Viola, RD, CSP
We’ve all been there. Just when we think we have our children figured out or on a good schedule, they change it up on us! This applies to so many things in our kiddos lives, from sleep to behavior and beyond, but a big area this can impact is eating. Even the best eaters can go astray at times.
As a mom and dietitian, I’ve been fortunate that my first son has been a pretty good eater. Some of that is due to work I’ve put in with him, but a lot of it has to do with the fact that he was open to trying lots of new foods before he hit about 18 months. As long as he was accepting, we kept throwing new flavors and textures his way. For his second birthday he requested Salmon with a Puttanesca sauce (olives, capers and tomatoes for those who are unfamiliar), spinach and roasted potatoes.
You can imagine my dismay when my child who previously ate all things decided that he wanted more control over what he ate and all but gave up on trying new foods and even started to shun some foods that he had previously enjoyed, like sweet potatoes.
For anyone out there struggling with this or even just dealing with a child who is less willing to try new things, the good news is that this is normal and the solution is relatively simple. It just may take some time to actually work. It’s frustrating in the short term when all you want is for your child to be eating well-rounded meals, but it’s more important to look at the big picture and help your child to maintain a healthy relationship with food.
Here are my top 5 tips for dealing with a good eater gone astray:
- Model good eating behavior. If they see you eating it, it will just be normal. You can’t expect your child to eat peas if you won’t touch them, how fair is that? I find that the older my son gets, the more likely he is to try foods from my plate when the pressure is off and he is the one doing the asking. He wouldn’t get that opportunity if I weren’t striving to eat a variety of foods.
- Eat dinner as a family. Eating together is a key way to model eating behaviors and to talk about food. Family dinners end up becoming so much more than just a time to eat and with everyone eating together, some of the pressure is removed from a child who would otherwise be eating under the watchful eye of his or her parents. The more you chat together at the table, the more relaxed the atmosphere is. That inviting atmosphere helps kids to feel more comfortable to experiment with their eating. Plus, who wants to eat alone?
- Talk about food in a positive way. Studies show that children are more likely to try and eat new foods when caregivers talk about the benefits of foods instead of the negative consequences of “bad” foods. Think talking up the benefits of broccoli over the harm in eating cookies all day. Choose something that motivates your child. Our oldest was desperate to ride a roller coaster at a local amusement park. We talked about the types of foods that would help him to grow big and tall in order to do that and guess what he started asking for more of? It totally works!
- The food choices that children make will only be as good as the foods that are offered to them. Enough said.
- Don’t force your child to eat. Kids will eat when they are hungry. As a parent, it is your job to provide a variety of foods to your child. Your child should be deciding which of those foods he or she will eat and how much. Battles over finishing food at the table only result in frustration on both ends and can ultimately disrupt your child’s ability to sense when he or she is full. Trust that ultimately, your child’s body knows what it needs and in turn, your child will become more adventurous as he or she begins to trust that you won’t be forcing food at mealtimes.
Disclaimer: These suggestions are for children who are otherwise growing and developing at a rate deemed appropriate by your child’s physician. If you are struggling with eating habits in a child who is having growth failure, it is important to seek out individualized advice from a professional, such as pediatric dietitian.