“Eat your dinner.”
“Just take three bites.”
“One bite and you can have a cookie.”
If your dinner table has become a battleground, you’re not alone. Picky eating is an age-old parental headache — but it’s also science. “Our evolutionary makeup draws us to eat sugary food,” says Dr. Corrie Clay, a board-certified pediatrician affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital. “Children are no different. As parents, we need to teach them that a balanced diet is best.”
But negotiating with a child can sometimes feel like torture — and too often, parents give up. Meals become more about eating something, instead of eating the right things. “In general, you shouldn’t worry about your child starving,” says Dr. Clay. “In a normal-weight child, it’s OK for them to occasionally refuse to eat a meal.”
Does that mean there are no health concerns for picky eaters? No. But health problems are very rare. Overall, kids get the nutrients they need. And the good news is they’ll probably outgrow their picky eating by the time they’re 4 or 5. Problems arise only when a child’s resistance to eating is severe. In those cases, a parent should consult a doctor.
Healthy eating guidelines
Parents often judge their child’s eating success night by night. Did they eat chicken on Wednesday? WIN! Was Thursday riddled with mac ’n’ cheese? LOSS! Dr. Clay advises against this. “Try to look at what your child eats over the course of a week,” she says. “Some days they will be great eaters, and other days, just a few bites here and there.” She emphasizes that children will eat when they’re hungry, so focusing on set mealtimes will often lead to failure.
Portion sizes are important too, as children are not meant to eat the same amount as their parents. A portion size for an adult is the size of their fist. The same measurement applies to kids. So keep in mind that a child really doesn’t need to eat that much. It’s more important to focus on what your child eats.
Dr. Clay suggests choosemyplate.gov as a resource. The general recommendation is:
- Fruits and veggies: 3 to 5 servings daily
- Foods with calcium (dairy, soy milk, almond milk): 3 to 5 servings daily
- Protein (meat, eggs, peanut butter, beans): 2 to 3 servings daily
Win the dinner debate
There’s no grand playbook in negotiating with a child. When it comes to eating, every child is different. But Dr. Clay does have five strategies she shares with frustrated parents:
- Put it aside.
Let your child leave the table, but save his dinner for later. Once he’s hungry again, give the same dinner another try.
- Serve in waves.
Offer vegetables first, then protein, then carbohydrates (like pasta, rice, corn and potatoes). This will prevent your child from filling up on carbs and rejecting healthier options.
- Get sneaky.
“Hide” vegetables in your child’s food — like mixing squash in pasta sauce or fruit in pancakes. There are many cookbooks out there that can help.
For every bite of food your child chooses, you get to choose as well. She gets a bite of carbs, but she must eat a bite of veggies.
- Lead by example.
Kids model our behaviors. If she sees you’re eating pizza, she’ll want pizza, too. Show her that you’re in this together.
One strategy Dr. Clay doesn’t endorse is settling. “If a child refuses to eat what you made them,” says Dr. Clay, “and then you make them something else, they’ll learn that refusing gets them what they want.” Instead of rewarding obstinate behavior, be patient and stick to your guns. It could take 10 to 15 tries before a child likes a certain food.
The most important thing to remember is that picky eating is both common and normal. “Almost every parent goes through this,” says Dr. Clay. “Children love attention. The best thing you can do is provide healthy food for your child. And when they’re ready, they’ll eat it.”