How to Handle a Picky Eater

Have a picky eater on your hands? A Roper St. Francis Healthcare affiliated nutritionist is here to help

Written by Virginia Beard

You meal plan, you food prep, you … watch your child throw that delicious, nutritious fare straight on the ground. If this scene sounds familiar, you’re not alone. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 25 to 35 percent of toddlers and preschoolers’ parents would describe their child as a poor or “picky” eater. And it’s not just frustrating: Selective eating habits can leave mom and dad asking serious questions like, “Is my child getting the vitamins and nutrients they need?” and, “Will this affect growth and development?”

Arrianna Johnson, registered dietitian and director of clinical nutrition at Roper St. Francis Healthcare, says that selective eating habits are most often not a cause for concern. “Refusing certain foods is normal,” says Johnson. “It can take as many as a dozen attempts before certain foods are accepted.” Picky eating is most prominent among preschool-aged children, she notes, and typically resolves itself after a few months.

As for whether your son or daughter is receiving adequate nutrition, “Parents should use their children’s pediatric wellness visits as a guide,” Johnson says. “Typically, kids follow a similar growth curve throughout childhood; you want to watch for any major discrepancies from year to year.”

In between wellness visits, if you notice signs like dramatic weight loss, behavior changes or poor energy levels, make an appointment with the pediatrician. Likewise, see the doctor if selective eating habits affect your child’s quality of life and/or persist for more than a few months as an underlying condition could be at play (though rare, these can range from a tongue tie to generalized anxiety, says the NIH). Sudden onset of picky eating habits among teens should prompt a visit to the doctor, as well, as they can be a red flag for disordered eating, depression and more.

For the standard mild to moderate picky eater, “Patience, time and repetition are the keys to success,” Johnson says. “It’s often a sign of your child’s growing independence and blossoming personality.” A positive thing, to be sure.

Flip the Script

Johnson shares these tips for upping your child’s interest in healthy fare.

  • Rethink your prep method. Steamed squash getting the toddler side-eye? Mix a squash purée with cooked macaroni noodles for a nutritious spin on mac and cheese. Adding sautéed, roasted or puréed vegetables to dishes like sloppy Joes, spaghetti, tacos, smoothies and baked goods can also help get healthy foods into children’s bellies.
  • Co-create in the kitchen. Incorporate your kiddo in the process of making the meal from start to finish. Let them pick out interesting looking veggies at the grocery store, find recipes together, ask them to tackle age-appropriate ingredient prep and, finally, have them taste test the creations at the dinner table.
  • Start at the source. Consider planting a fruit or vegetable garden with your child so they can see the nutritious foods grow.
  • Model behavior. According to both Johnson and the NIH, food is more readily accepted when others around are eating the same thing. Get excited about the healthy food on your own plate, rather than framing it as a task for everyone to accomplish.
  • Start small. Serve your child small portions of new foods and be patient with them as they try new things. Remember, it can take up to a dozen times for a child to accept a new food.
  • Avoid waste. For new dishes that aren’t gobbled up on the first go, try freezing small bites to re-introduce later.
  • Visit choosemyplate.gov. “There you’ll find creative meal ideas, portion guides and nutrition advice,” says Johnson.

RESEARCH NEWS: Heads Up! 

A new study reveals sports with the highest risk for traumatic brain injury … and the results may surprise you

If you’re thinking contact sports like football and soccer are at the top of this list, think again. Researchers from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Australia studied data from more than 8,800 children ages five to 18 years old who were admitted to emergency departments throughout Australia and New Zealand for head injuries. One-third of the children—3,177, to be exact—sustained their head injury while participating in a sport, and, of those, 45 were diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury, which study authors define as requiring neurological surgery, a two-night stay in the hospital and/or use of a ventilator. At 16 percent, bike riding caused the most head injuries, followed by rugby (13 percent), football (10 percent) and soccer (eight percent). Looking specifically at traumatic brain injuries, recreational sports were more culpable than contact activities. Biking was again the leading cause (responsible for 44 percent of those more serious maladies), followed by skateboarding (18 percent) and horseback riding (16 percent). While football, rugby and soccer did cause more cases of mild head injury, football and rugby were each only linked with one traumatic brain injury, and soccer was tied to none.

Photographs by New Africa/Shutterstock; & Oksana Kuzmina/Shutterstock; Photograph by Homydesign/Shutterstock

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