Question: All my five-year-old will eat is mushroom soup and macaroni and cheese. Then, an hour later, she is "starving." This can’t be healthy! What can I do to encourage her to eat a wider range of healthier food?

Answer:

Ah . . . The Picky Eater, a source of worry and frustration for parents everywhere! It can be challenging to introduce young children to the flavours, aromas, textures, and appearance of foods they haven’t encountered before. But don’t panic; there is hope. You can expand your child’s culinary palate without losing your mind!

Address the behaviour

Firstly, make sure that you are addressing the child’s behaviour and learning around food, and not an actual medical problem or condition. Selectivity is not the same as an allergy, or even a sensitivity/intolerance.

Children with food allergies will have specific physical reactions to that exposure (a rash or vomiting, for example). If this seems to be the issue, remove the suspected food "trigger" from your child’s diet, and seek medical attention for him or her.

Tips to consider

If, however, you are reasonably sure that your child is not experiencing adverse physical effects from the specific food(s) you offer, consider the following pointers:

  • Children’s appetites can range from voracious to barely there, depending on their growth cycles, activity levels, general health and other factors. Similarly, foods kids enjoyed a short time ago may land on the "most hated" list without warning. Don’t be too worried about a child’s selectivity leading to starvation or another health crisis. Your child will eat when hungry. The availability of healthy food options to meet this need is your responsibility. Let your child know ahead of time that he or she won’t be having cookies as a bedtime snack if they skip their veggies at supper. And remember, veggies make a great snack!

  • Don’t make food a battleground, or focus on your child’s body shape or weight. Food is one of God’s good gifts to us! Help your child to learn thankfulness for the Lord’s provision of healthy, tasty food, and the countless ways He has offered it (as fruit, fish, veggies and more) and that we can prepare it.

  • For some children, being selective about food is really about pushing boundaries and testing to see who holds the power. Is it me or mom?, they wonder. Busy and exhausted parents are often tempted to give in to a whining child’s demands for a favourite food. But as with the earlier phases of sleep- and toilet- training, your consistency is an important experience for the child. Be sure that you are not providing snacks and junk food to gain peace, in the short term, at the expense of long-term good habits and nutrition.

  • Salty and sweet are not the only flavours out there! Commercial baby foods often have high levels of salt and sugar, flavours that humans typically favour above others. By comparison, other food may seem dull and unappetizing to a child now eating "grown up" food. If your child is hooked on the mac and cheese from a box, try making your own from scratch where you control the type and quality of ingredients. Swap out regular pasta for whole wheat, make the cream sauce low fat, or add grated carrots and other "crunchies" to a cheesy baked topping. Spices, fruit, honey and other healthy traditional options are widely available to give your meals lots of "pop" without salt and sugar.

  • For children who are very sensitive to textures (the kids who protest, I can’t wear that shirt – it itches), some foods really do feel downright "icky" in the mouth, regardless of the flavour! Try pairing those foods with textures they are comfortable with. Can’t handle "slippery" food? Add crunchiness. Mashed veggies a problem? Serve them raw as a side, in a main salad, or cooked by a different method.

  • Remember that you didn’t like every taste you met the first time around either! Offering the food over time, in small portions, can help your child become accustomed and open, rather than overwhelmed and resistant when food is the focus.

  • Engage your child in helping to prepare the food. Learning about ingredients "up close," how they are used, and what they turn into as a finished meal is a great way of helping a child be open to new food adventures.

Karin Gregory is a counsellor with Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2016 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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