Ask the Pediatrician: How Can Parents Get Their Kids to Try Healthy Foods?

Q: My kids are picky about eating. How can I get them to try healthier options?

A: Selective eating in childhood, especially between 2 and 4 years of age, is very common. It can cause a lot of conflict at mealtime, as parents invest heavily in kids eating vegetables and kids invest heavily in refusing to do so.

Realizing that selectivity is natural and usually short-lived can make meal times more enjoyable. A simple approach to selective eating can help children to run around and try a variety of foods. Here are some basic strategies you can try:

• Whenever possible, eat family meals together, eat healthy and be adventurous. Children often watch and adapt to the habits of parents, older siblings, and peers. When the rest of the family eats balanced meals that include fruits and vegetables, children are more likely to do the same.

• Follow regular and orderly meal and snack times. Make it a rule for the kids to sit down at the table to eat without any distractions or devices.

• Let your child choose what and how much to eat from the offer. At the same time, avoid serving separate meals or snacks if they refuse to eat. Include at least one food in the meals and snacks the child likes.

• Allow them to refuse or refuse food but offer it again later. It can take children between 15 and 20 years to love a new food. Repeated exposure to the rejected food may help it become a new favorite.

• Involve children in helping to choose, develop and cook foods. The more they interact, the more likely they are to eventually try foods.

You may also want to try these tips geared towards a specific age and developmental stages:

During pregnancy: Get in the habit of eating at least one unusual, new, or bitter food a few times a week. The flavors transfer into the amniotic fluid, giving your unborn baby an early “taste” of foods that he may then be more willing to eat later. In addition, the more new foods you try, the more you will like and model your eating.

Childhood: Eating a variety of foods while breastfeeding can increase your baby’s exposure to those foods through breast milk. Making flavors more familiar makes it less likely that your child will reject them in solid foods.

Once solid foods are introduced at about 6 months of age, introduce one new food at a time, with a plan to include bitter vegetables, fish, and a bit of seasoning from the start. Offer foods with a variety of textures and aromas. (Once you have all the ingredients in the recipe in, it’s OK to whip it up together.) Babies have immature taste buds, which keeps them open to eating just about anything in their first year or so of eating solids. When you start eating solid foods, make sure the food is soft and small enough to prevent choking.

toddler: Between 18 months and two years, many children begin to show their dislike of unfamiliar foods, a so-called “neophobia”. Keep the flow going and make eating family meals together a habit. Resist the urge to force the child to eat or engage in mealtime fights. But it also does not satisfy picky preferences.

Preschool: Involve preschoolers in the process of choosing and preparing foods. Children are more likely to eat what they grow, choose, or prepare. Preschoolers tend to love garden-grown vegetables with sauce, chutney, or nut butter.

school age: Help children learn where their food comes from by growing a miniature garden. Plant easy-to-grow foods that a child might resist trying, such as spinach or sweet peppers.

Adolescence: Commit to eating family meals together at least two to three times a week. This increases the likelihood that a teen will eat a balanced meal, in addition, research shows that eating shared family meals can help strengthen family relationships and reduce the likelihood of risk-taking behaviors.

Sometimes have your teen help choose and prepare meals, which will help him develop culinary skills. Ask that the meal contain protein, grains, fruits and vegetables, but avoid the urge to get involved in the nitty-gritty of what your teen chooses.

A simple approach to selective eating can help children to run around and try a variety of foods.

A simple approach to selective eating can help children run around and try a variety of foods. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Dr. Natalie de Moth is a pediatrician and registered dietitian practicing general pediatrics and is the director of the Well Healthy Living Clinic at Children’s Primary Care Medical Group in Carlsbad, California. She is also the author of “Family Fit Plan” and co-author of “The Picky Eater Project.” You can find more information at HealthyChildren.org, the AAP’s parenting website.

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