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Parenting the Picky Eater

Why Johnny won't eat

By Michele Bloomquist
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson

Three-year-old Brandon may grow up to be the next great culinary critic. He knows exactly what the consistency of macaroni and cheese must be, that hot dogs cannot have grill lines on them, and that corn must never be served with the juice. While his mother Melissa is happy that Brandon knows how to communicate what he wants, she is less than pleased when he chooses to do so -- loudly -- in the middle of a crowded restaurant.

Catharine's little gourmet, Fenner, has a different issue. She wants to eat the same 10-15 foods over and over and over. Fenner basically lives on Fig Newtons, peanut butter sandwiches, and fortified cereal. Fruits and vegetables? No, thank you -- not this 3-year-old. To her mom's dismay, little sister Ellen seems to be following in Fenner's finicky footsteps.

While their experiences are common, the solutions are much debated. Over the ages parents have tried everything from "You'll sit there until you finish every bite on your plate" to "What do you want for dinner, darling, ice cream or carrots?" The answer, says Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, lies somewhere in between those two extremes. Ward and other experts offer parents the following menu of pick-and-choose advice to broadening their child's food horizons.

Avoid the Power Struggle

One of the surest ways to win the battle but lose the war is to engage in a power struggle with your child over food, says Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE, author of the book The Parent's Toolshop. With power struggles you are saying, "Do it because I'm the parent" and that's a rationale that won't work long, she says. But if your child understands the why behind the rules, those values can lay the groundwork for a lifetime of sound food choices, whether you are there to enforce them or not, she says.

Let Kids Participate

Get a stepstool and ask your kids to lend a hand in the kitchen with easy tasks, says Sal Severe, PhD, author of the book How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too.

"If they participate in helping to make the meal, they are more likely to want to try it," he says. It's also a great way to put the ball back in the child's court when it comes to food preferences like Brandon's, says Johnston Pawel. "Let him help drain the corn or pour the milk into the macaroni and cheese. Then he is taking responsibility for his preferences."

Don't Label

Severe reminds parents that, more often than not, kids under 5 are going to be selective eaters.

"It's rare to have a child that will eat anything you put in front of them. Being selective is actually normal," he says. Ward agrees. She prefers the phrase "limited eater" instead of "picky" because it is less negative.

Catharine has asked that her family not focus on Fenner's eating habits. "I don't want her to become known as the famous family picky eater," she says.

Nor does Catharine want Fenner to be lavished with praise for every bite she eats. "I don't want her to get the message that she's good or bad based on what she eats," she says.

Build on the Positives

"Often when I sit down with parents, we'll often find that their child actually does eat two or three things from each food group," says Ward. Just as children can get great comfort out of reading the same story over and over, they also enjoy having a set of "predictable" foods.

"Even though they aren't getting a wide variety of foods, they are actually doing OK nutritionally," says Ward. When the child goes through a growth spurt and has a bigger appetite, use that opportunity to introduce new foods to their list of old standbys, she says.

Expose, Expose, Expose

Ward says a child needs to be exposed to a new food between 10 and 15 times before he or she will accept it. But many parents give up long before that, thinking their child just doesn't like it, she says. So even if your child only plays with the strawberry on her plate, don't give up. One day she just may surprise you by taking a bite. However, don't go overboard and try to introduce three new foods at every meal, says Severe. Limit exposure to one or two new foods a week.

Don't Bribe

Avoid using sweets as a bribe to get kids to eat something else, says Johnston Pawel. Doing so can send the message that doing the right thing should involve an external reward. The real reward of sound nutrition is a healthy body, not a chocolate cupcake, she says.

Beware of Over-Snacking

Sometimes the problem isn't so much that the child doesn't like new foods, it may be that they are already full, says Ward. A common culprit is fluid. "Kids can consume a lot of their calories from milk and juice," she says.

The same goes for snacks that provide little more than calories like chips, sweets, and sodas. "If you are going to offer snacks, make sure they are supplementing meals, not sabotaging them," Ward says.

Establish "Bottom-Line Limits"

Having a set of bottom-line limits can help a parent provide some consistency, says Johnston Pawel. For example, some parents may have the rule "nutritious foods before snack food." Or that kids have to at least try a new food before rejecting it.

"Consistency only works if what you are doing in the first place is reasonable," she says. So try to avoid overly controlling or overly permissive rules. If bottom-line limits are healthy, effective, and balanced, they'll pay off, she says.

Examine Your Role Model

Make sure you aren't asking kids to "do as I say, not as I do," says Johnston Pawel. If your own diet is based mainly on fat, sugar, and salt, you can hardly expect your child to embrace a dinner salad over fries.

Defuse Mealtimes

Don't make your child's eating habits part of the mealtime discussion, says Ward. Otherwise every meal becomes a stressful event, centered on what the child does and does not eat. Ward suggests parents reserve talks about the importance of good eating for later, perhaps at bedtime or story time. Catharine says this approach has worked for her. "I work hard to make it a nonissue," she says. "Otherwise it would make me crazy."

Give It Time

"I find that children become much more open to trying new foods after the age of 5," says Ward. "Most of the time kids will simply grow out of limited eating," she says.

Catharine is looking forward to that day. "In the meantime, as long as Fenner is growing and reaching all her developmental goals, I'm OK with her eating the same foods over and over," she says.

Melissa says Brandon's somewhat eccentric demands are already improving. She's been working with him to learn that while he can have preferences, his every wish can't always be accommodated. A recent outing to a restaurant provided a small victory when Brandon was able to eat something even though it wasn't exactly as he wanted it.

"Hang in there," Melissa advises other parents. "Make sure they know you love them, stick to your guns, and it will all come out OK in the end."

Orginally published June 4, 2001.
Medically updated Aug. 4, 2003.

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