Advice for Parents of Picky Eaters
MADISON – For many parents, a child who is a picky eater can cause a lot of anxiety around the dinner table. Whether it's eating only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or declaring broccoli the best thing ever one day, only to spit it out the next – picky eaters can cause more than a few mealtime battles.
"In a meal situation," commented Amy Podmolik, UW Health Registered Dietitian, "children will always win. The more parents try to take control, the more combative it will become."
Ironically, many parents themselves can probably recall situations from their own childhood where they were forced to sit at the table until they tried a particular food. Or were made to clean their plates before they were excused. The problem, explained Podmolik, is that it only sets up an unhealthy relationship with food in the future.
"Being a picky eater is normal for children," said Podmolik. "It can take 20 different attempts at introducing a food before a child will even try it."
Best Advice for Parents: Relax
It is common for parents to be concerned about whether their child is eating enough, or eating enough of the right types of foods. Throw in parenting books full of advice, comments from other parents and even doctors that a child isn't growing properly, or isn't transitioning to foods quickly enough, and it can be overwhelming. It can also lead to more than a few struggles at mealtimes.
But Podmolik has relatively simple advice for parents: Relax.
"My daughter was diagnosed as 'failure to thrive,' meaning she wasn't growing at the rate the doctors felt she should be. She's now nearly 5'6" and in the army. I wouldn't want to meet her on a dark street," joked Podmolik.
She is sympathetic to the struggles of parents. With five children of her own, she's had intimate experience with feeding challenges. Podmolik often refers to the work of nationally known nutritionist Ellyn Satter, who specializes in helping parents and children develop positive relationships with food and mealtimes.
Drawing from Satter's work, Podmolik points out that when it comes to meals, both parents and children have their own responsibilities.
"A parent's job is what, where and when," said Podmolik. She went on to explain that essentially means that parents should:
- Choose and prepare food
- Provide regular meals and snacks
- Make eating times pleasant
- Show proper mealtime and food behavior (manners, as well as setting an example for trying new foods)
- Not allow food or beverages between meal and snack times
"This generation is the first generation in history that is actually going backwards in longevity. And it's all because of nutrition. What we eat affects diabetes, cancer, obesity, hypertension," said Podmolik.
So while she tells parents to relax, she also emphasizes the important role that they play. Part of their job is to help children develop a natural sense of hunger, a natural sense of being full, and a natural curiosity about food.
"Until the age of three, children have a perfect sense of how many calories they need," explained Podmolik. "If a child eats 100 calories in a snack before a meal, he'll eat 100 calories less at the next meal."
That natural regulation begins to change as children grow. That's when parents need to establish more structure around food. Instead of non-stop grazing opportunities, for example, it's important to establish a meal time, snack time routine with three meals a day and at least two snacks.
"When the child comes and says, 'I'm hungry' parents should respond, 'Great, snack time is in 15 minutes' rather than just handing them something and sending them on their way," said Podmolik.
Children's responsibility consists of two things – how much and whether.
Podmolik cautioned that letting the children live up to their responsibility can be uncomfortable for parents. If there are concerns that a child is either too heavy or not heavy enough, parents should not restrict or force food onto their children. And if a child won't eat, then it is his choice and parents should let it go because forcing the situation will only turn it into a struggle for power.
Podmolik says there are three ways that children learn: "by example, by example and by example." That's why family meals are critically important to a child's sense of security and for guidance. Children need to feel in control of their eating. When the environment is supportive and friendly, and children have a sense of freedom and reassurance, they will likely eat better and more varieties of food.
"Parents have to respect that children's eating habits are different," said Podmolik. "And we need to create a loving, supportive environment that lets them explore and learn about food."
Possible Reasons for Problems
When a child does have a feeding problem, eats too much or too little, grows too fast or too slowly, is demanding or shows anxiety or defiance at the table, Podmolik points out several possible reasons why:
- Parents are having trouble doing their job (what, where and when) and having trouble trusting a child to do his (how much and whether)
- Parents misinterpret what is normal, such as not realizing children may be inconsistent in their eating habits
- Children may be growing normally, even if on the growth charts they're on one extreme or the other
- Early medical problems may interfere, such as if a child had a feeding tube or reflux as an infant and consequently doesn't like particular food consistencies
- Children with special needs or sensitivities may be prone to eating problems
- Family stress may actually bring on eating problems in children, such as divorce or other significant stress
"Eating is one way children have of maintaining control in their life," commented Podmolik. "And these problems can become life-long. We increasingly see eating disorders in our clinic, many of which are tied to childhood issues."
She cautioned that no parent intentionally creates eating problems in their children. Even the most well-meaning parent can create a stressful situation out of concern for their child's health.
"We need to send the message to kids that they are the way they should be," said Podmolik.
Helping Kids Learn to Eat Healthily
She quickly pointed out that there are many things parents can do to help their children learn to be healthy eaters, in addition to those family meals. Her recommendations include:
- Make changes slowly. Start with foods your child readily accepts and grow from there.
- Sit-down snacks. Don't let children graze all day. This is true for adults too. It's easy to lose track of the quantity and quality of food you're taking in.
- Include four or five food items with each meal, so there’s a variety to chose from
- Give children time and reassurance when trying to introduce new foods
- Children and adults learn to like new food. When introducing a child to new food, put it next to an accepted food so children see it. If they just look at it, that's okay. They may even taste it and take it right back out of their mouth. It's all part of the process.
"My grandson will eat anything that dips," laughed Podmolik. "The other day I had hummus and crackers and he came up and just ate and ate it. Smashed chickpeas with garlic. And he loved it!"
A Job Done Well
When parents do their jobs and children do theirs, then most likely they will:
- Eat the food that is prepared for them
- Eat the amount they need
- Increase the variety of foods they eat
- Grow predictably and at a rate appropriate to them
- Learn to behave at the table
"The take-away message," Podmolik quipped, "is to let parents do the feeding and children do the eating. And when they do, it will be a healthy and happy situation for everyone."
Date Published: 11/06/2008