Instilling Good Habits in a Picky Eater

PHOTO: THINKSTOCK/CHOREOGRAPH

In a recent visit with my pediatrician, I expressed frustration with my child’s picky eating. She gave the piece of advice I have given many times to parents: “Just continue to offer a wide variety of foods.” While this may sound great, the reality for busy families is that often there isn’t time for trial and error.

If you are frustrated, like I am, with trying to make sure your picky eater is getting all the nutrients he or she needs, here’s some good news for you: Nutrition is more than kale salads and green smoothies.

One of the most important things we can teach our children is how to eat. I’m not talking about how to use a fork, but how to eat in response to hunger and our body’s nutritional needs, not external cues. In honor of National Nutrition Month, here are some tips for modeling how to eat healthfully and, in turn, teach our children to develop a lifestyle of healthy choices surrounding food

Talk About It

When you sit down to eat dinner, talk about how hungry you are and how you know you’re hungry. Are you hungry because it’s 6 p.m.? Are you hungry because you smelled the barbecue from the restaurant down the street? Or, are you hungry because your stomach is growling? Research suggests that most children at age 4 will eat to their hunger when served, but by age 6 how much children eat depends on what serving size they are offered. Discuss feelings of hunger and fullness and teach your children to listen to their bodies.

You are Where You Eat

Turn off the TV, clear the table of homework or yesterday’s mail and sit down to eat. This may not be a possibility for you every night, as you shuttle kids from one practice or activity to the next, but make an effort to model this when you can. Set a goal as a family for how many nights per week you can accomplish this. Write out questions that can be silly or serious to encourage discussion. Emotional eating can start young. Focus on creating a positive environment around the dinner table. When we’ve had a bad day, our brains signal us to eat foods that we know will send happy signals to our brains. Eliminating distractions while eating can help you listen to your body more effectively.

Keep It Simple

Helping your kids eat healthfully doesn’t have to be a complicated list of do’s and don’ts. Instead of labeling food as good or bad, divide foods into everyday and occasional categories. Cake would be an occasional food, and lean proteins and fruits and veggies — in a variety of forms — would be everyday foods.

Go Tech

Involving kids in the kitchen may be a cure for your picky eating woes. When children see food and take a vested interest in how it is prepared, they likely will be more willing to try it. I also suggest using technology to grab your child’s interest. Sites such as Pinterest or YouTube offer recipes and food preparation tutorials that may make helping in the kitchen more fun. Teach children to identify healthy recipes — those that include protein and a vegetable — and allow them to create menu boards or find videos that show how to prepare the meals.

You better believe my picky eater has not been offered her last green smoothie or cauliflower pizza. But I am going to help my family put their best fork forward by teaching them how to eat with these basic principles — then I can be more successful in making sure the what is more nutritional later.

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Bethany Frazier
Bethany Frazier, MS, RD, LDN, coaches individual clients, provides support for acute care patients and serves as a media spokesperson. She blogs at www.kansascitydietitian.com on a variety of topics, and her specialties are IBS, FODMAPS, GI Issues, Sports Nutrition and Weight Loss (Mindful Eating).