You swear up and down it won’t happen to you, but inevitably it does. Your child becomes a picky eater. Whether it’s a phase or a lifestyle for your little one, we’ve really all been there. Picky eating in kids is totally normal and usually, just a really stressful stage of life.
Of course, as a parent of a picky eater, you’re constantly worrying about nutrition and health. Nutrition, as well as exposure to a broad range of flavors and foods, is really impactful in young children and you want to make sure you’re doing the right thing. But, what is the right thing exactly? Should you keep up the good fight? Give in and just make mac n’ cheese three times a day? Coax and spoonfeed? There are so many options it can be hard to know which way to go.
We totally commiserate, so we partnered with Healthy Times, a line of premium food and baby care products made with organic, gentle ingredients for your little one. They have been trusted by parents who are looking to feed their kiddos products that are nutritious, delicious, and free from any additives and synthetic preservatives since 1980. Their products do the work so you don’t have to, and in return, you get a little peace of mind that at least your little one is taking in important vitamins and minerals while you continue the battle for a variety of healthy foods.
We love the Toddler Formula, which is specifically formulated to meet the nutritional needs of children one year and older. And their Organic Hugga Bear Cookies help toddlers learn that treats can be part of a balanced diet (even for picky eaters) – these tasty treats have all the vitamins and minerals little ones need, including calcium, B vitamins, zinc, and iron.
We spoke with Sara Vance, nutritionist and author of The Perfect Metabolism Plan, to get a better grasp on picky eating, why it happens, and how you can help.
What causes a picky eater? Is it based on the individual or is there something parents can do to prevent picky eating? Do these prevention strategies work?
There could be lots of different reasons for picky eating. But parents should know that it’s totally normal for toddlers and young children to go through a picky eating stage. As long as parents continue to offer a wide range of healthy choices and don’t cater to their pickiness, many kids will eventually just outgrow it.
But picky kids can become picky teenagers and even adults if they continue to eat a very narrow range of foods. Sometimes, there is a physiological reason for pickiness (such as tongue tie, a GI infection, food intolerances, etc.). So if the picky eating behavior persists or gets worse, parents should consider discussing it with their pediatrician and working with a feeding specialist and/or nutritionist.
How can parents ensure picky eaters are getting enough calories and nutrition?
Kids bodies’ need a variety of macro and micronutrients for growth, energy, focus, immunity, digestion, and all cellular functions. Consuming a very narrow range of foods (often “white” foods) can eventually lead to nutrient deficiencies, lowered immune system, constipation, attention or focus issues, fatigue, and even other problems like delayed growth and bone building issues. Eating a highly processed diet can also increase the risk for weight gain.
The younger you can start, the better, because as kids get older, their eating habits get more “set” and difficult to change and they tend to make more decisions on their own. But it’s never too late to start improving dietary habits – even picky adults can do it!
Avoid candy, sodas, and other super sweet foods and drinks, as those can make picky eating worse and tend to be devoid of nutrients.
What are the best methods to approach picky eating? What is a good mealtime routine that accounts for picky eating?
One of the #1 things I suggest doing is during that “witching” hour before dinner when they are hungry but dinner isn’t quite ready, set out a plate of veggies, dips, and nutritious snacks and let them go to town on that. That way, you know they are getting important antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Kids love to dip – so offering veggies and dips is one of my favorite things for kids.
Make sure that you continue to offer a variety of nutritious food – proteins, colorful veggies and fruits, and healthy, fiber-rich carbs. Kids like positive reinforcement – so consider using a reward system or chart for a little while.
I even suggest “enhancing” foods with fruits and veggies – add some baby spinach, carrots, or even toddler formula to a smoothie (like my Tropical Dreamsicle Smoothie, made with Healthy Times organic formula and baby carrots), butternut squash puree to pasta sauce, etc.
Get your kids involved in meal-time prep. If they made it, they will be way more likely to try it! You’d be surprised at how much toddlers can do to help in the kitchen – just make sure to keep sharp items away from them and avoid choking hazards.
What’s considered an appropriate serving size for a toddler or young child? What’s an example of a healthy and reasonably-sized meal?
This is going to vary from child to child and also for their activity level. But in general – I say use your toddler’s hands to guide you. A handful of fruit or veggies is considered a serving, and a palm-sized amount of protein (about 1 oz.) is a serving. But again, remember that can vary if they are more active, going through a growth spurt, etc.
I encourage parents to keep three goals in mind when feeding their young child. Ask yourself if this food will:
- Provide lasting energy
- Deliver key macro and micronutrients
- Be delicious
What advice do you have for parents who are struggling with very picky eaters and concerned about their overall health?
Just know that it is totally normal to have a picky eater. Many kids will grow out of this stage on their own if parents continue to provide a variety of foods, and kids are encouraged to keep trying them.
Just know it can take 15 exposures to a food before kids develop a “taste” for it, so encourage them to keep trying! And use transitional foods, like baby cereal, to ease them into liking the taste and texture of new foods. I love the Organic Cereal from Healthy Times because of its wholesome ingredients and variety of flavors.
In some cases, “pickiness” could be an underlying food intolerance or allergy. If a child says that a food gives them a belly ache, or if you notice a food makes their nose run, skin itch, or rashes to develop, remove that food from their diet for at least three months. Consider seeing an allergist to check for food allergies, as some food allergies can be very severe. Talk to your pediatrician if you are concerned to make sure it is not affecting their growth or development. Parents should set a good example and make healthy choices. Kids tend to model the behavior of people they are closest to.
Should parents “strongly encourage” picky eaters to eat a certain amount before leaving the table? Should there be a time limit placed on mealtimes?
This depends on the child’s age and situation. Parents should look at the overall big picture, as opposed to each individual meal or snack. Shoot for getting a good balance of foods over a day’s time. Look for ways to get in those servings of fruit and veggies throughout the day.
Avoid power struggles – those tend to make the problem worse. Instead, focus on positive reinforcement. Mealtime should be pleasant and enjoyable. Resist the urge to beg or bribe your child, focusing instead on encouragement and positive reinforcement of good choices.
Remember – the most important thing is to build a foundation for healthy eating decisions for the rest of their lives. My approach is to never make food the enemy and emphasizing that a healthy, balanced diet can include the occasional treat – ideally choose wholesome and organic options like Healthy Times Hugga Bear Cookies, which contain a variety of essential vitamins and nutrients.
How should a parent approach picky eating if there are sensory issues (i.e. a child who prefers crunch to softer food, doesn’t like certain textures of food, has a strong gag reflex, etc.)?
This is actually a common reason for picky eating and a reason for trying foods prepared in multiple ways – your child might not like cooked carrots, but they enjoy them raw. They may not like the texture of strawberries or other fruits but will eat them in smoothies.
This is an instance where “enhancing” the nutrition of foods can be a good idea – add some butternut squash puree to mac and cheese or spaghetti sauce, or boost smoothies with chia seeds, carrots, baby spinach, or toddler formula.
Help them expand their palette by slowly introducing your child to new textures. For example, when introducing your child to solids, add baby cereal to milk to get them used to the texture and flavor before introducing other foods.
For sensory issues that persist or are severe, it is a good idea to seek out a feeding specialist.
When should parents be concerned about picky eating? When should they seek external help/resources like nutritionists or therapists?
Picky eating can range from mild to severe – if your child is extremely limited in the foods they will eat, or you are worried that their growth or health could be suffering, I would seek out some professional support and testing. Their doctor should rule out any physiological reasons for the issue (food allergies, tongue tie, GI infection, etc.). Even for mild picky eaters, getting support from an expert can be useful to help you gain some new approaches to try, recipes, etc. There are a number of books that can be helpful as well.
This post was in partnership with Healthy Times, but all of the opinions within are those of The Everymom editorial board.