We know: Some kids just don't want to eat anything that includes things like protein and vitamins. Chicken? Not unless it comes in nugget form. Broccoli? Ick, ick, ick. Fruit? Does a fruit snack count? (The answer is no.)
As this school year is starting, one of your goals as a parent might be to expand the palate of those picky eaters and up the nutrients for kids who seem to be stuck on little to none.
Pediatric dietitian Maegan Davis of Texas Children’s Specialty Care starts with how we talk about food with our children.
"It shouldn't be made into a big deal," she says. Because kids hear everything, think about what we say. Do we talk about cheat meals or treats or food as good foods versus bad foods?
"Everything should be in balance," she says. "It's not bad versus good."
Instead, encourage foods that are more nutritious and talk about those foods as doing good things for our bodies, but don't restrict foods.
"Restricting a food makes it seem bad," she says. "When you restrict a food, children are wanting that food more. It seems like a rebellion to go for that food versus something better."
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Food also should not be thought of as a bribe or an incentive. Use something like stickers or experiences for incentives instead.
Davis encourages families to introduce healthier foods alongside the less nutritious food they might have been eating. If kids like to eat cookies, offer yogurt and a cookie. Make snacks pretzels and carrots.
"There's nothing you can't have," she says. "It's the amount that we have."
She recommends using choosemyplate.gov, from the United States Department of Agriculture. It's a visual way to show different types of food on your plate with your kids and see how much of each food group should be on your plate. Choosemyplate.gov also has a calorie level by each age to help you see how much kids really do need.
Lose the idea that kids need to finish their plates.
"Often kids regulate themselves," Davis says. "Parents don't think a child is eating enough when really they are."
If kids aren't growing or have had a dramatic fluctuation in weight, then it's a cause for concern that their doctor should know about. If they are restricting food, skipping meals or sneaking food, doctors want to know that, too. If they are just being picky about what they eat, that's normal.
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Children often need about 12 exposures to the same food before they show interest in eating it, Davis says. Sometimes it's as simple as preparing it a different way or pairing it with a different food. She recommends roasting things like broccoli to bring out the sweetness in it or using cookie cutters in preparing fruit or veggies to make them fun.
"If you're exposing them to a new food, make sure there's something else on the plate that they are familiar with and like," she says.
Davis also recommends that kids be involved in where their food comes from. That can mean having a garden to grow some vegetables or herbs. It can mean going to a farmers market to shop or going berry picking at a local farm. It also can mean helping prepare meals in the kitchen alongside you.
Make small changes instead of trying to change everything at once, Davis recommends. Those changes are more likely to stick.
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