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Food Fight? Raising Non-Picky Eaters

Mealtime can become a battle of wills between parents and children, despite the best of intentions. In fact, parents often bring up concerns about a child’s eating habits in my clinic. 

A consistent but relaxed approach to meals can help children develop a healthy attitude about food and result in a more enjoyable mealtimes. Follow these strategies from birth through teenage years. 

Babies to Toddlers

0-4 months. Did you know the taste of breast milk changes based on what moms eat? When nursing mothers have a varied diet, babies get used to different tastes early on. It’s also true that parents who are picky eaters are more likely to have children who are picky eaters. Because children mimic their parents, now’s a great time for moms and dads to get more variety in their diets. 

4-6 months. This is when current recommendations are to start solid foods. There are several cues and clues on when to start. First, babies will start watching you eat. They might make a bird mouth and move toward you.

  • Start with strained meats and vegetables before fruits so babies don’t get used to sweets flavors first.
  • Introduce strong tasting things early, such as broccoli.
  • Don't put juice in a bottle because it gets babies used to sweet flavors. If they need extra hydration on a hot day, give them water. 

9-12 months. Babies should be getting more calories from food than breast milk. Keep in mind, growth begins to slow around age 1 and kids tend to grow in spurts.

18 to 24 months. This is when parents typically tell me their child never eats anything. At this age, kids generally don’t need the calories you might think they need, because they don’t grow every day. Toddlers might only eat two really good meals a month, and that’s okay. Just keep offering sufficient amounts of food and they will choose the appropriate number of calories. 

Toddler to Teens

Break it up. Six small meals a day – three meals and three snacks – starting at toddler age is appropriate. Snacks are a good time to get fresh fruits and vegetables in their diet. 

Be patient. If kids eat slowly, let them be slow eaters. It’s actually healthier because they’ll get the cue that they are full before eating too much. 

Don’t fight repeats. Toddlers often want the same things over and over because they learn by repetition. That’s why they want the same story – and the same food – over and over. There’s commonly a stage when kids don’t want to try anything new because it’s scary to them. Wait it out and they’ll likely come around.

Offering is not forcing. No one likes food that is forced on them. Everyone has likes and dislikes. Offer different foods but don’t force children to eat everything.  

You don’t have to cater. There’s a fine line between offering options and becoming a short order cook. Here’s some tips to keep it balanced.

  • Try either/or. You don’t ask a toddler if they want to get dressed. You ask: Do you want to put on your shirt or your pants? Do the same with foods – offer a couple of choices.
  • Meal plan and post the menu. Kids are more receptive if they know what’s coming.
  • If children insist they’re not hungry, believe them. We’re not all hungry at the same time. Put their food in the refrigerator and let them eat it later. 
  • Allow children to make their own food at an appropriate age, if they don’t like what’s being served. Maybe it’s a cheese or peanut butter sandwich. It also helps them learn life skills. 
  • Involve the whole family in meal planning, shopping and cooking. It gives children a sense of control and teaches age-appropriate skills.
  • Expand the menu. If your children don’t like typical breakfast foods, think outside the box. Bacon,eggs and cereal are a cultural norm, not a nutritional necessity. It’s fine to give them leftover pizza or steak, for example. 

Tips for teens. All kids need breakfast, but it’s a meal teens often skip. Unfortunately, they don’t learn well at school when they’re hungry. Breakfast doesn’t have to be elaborate – milk and a granola bar are sufficient. Proteins that take longer for your body to metabolize are also good choices. Lunch is also important. Discourage the habit of skipping lunch just to scarf fast food after school.

Resist comparisons. I tell parents not to compare their child’s growth to others. A child who is shorter than his or her peers one year might tower over them the next, thanks to growth spurts which are impossible to predict. Some parents are even tempted to provide protein drinks or nutritional supplements to speed up growth. Outside of a few exceptions – children who have illnesses or are on medications that suppress appetite – nutritional supplements are completely unnecessary.

Stock up. Keep healthy foods on hand rather than less healthy options. If adults drink sweetened beverages, children will want to drink them too. The same goes for snack foods. Keeping healthy options in the house is good for everyone. 

If you have concerns about your child’s diet or growth, talk to your primary care provider. We can help you navigate meal challenges and growth concerns. 

Kathryn Obregon, MD
Kathryn Obregon, MD

Kathryn Obregon, MD is a Pediatrics provider with CHI St. Alexius Health.

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