Maybe he avoids all things green or freaks out when foods touch on his plate. Perhaps she will eat only typical kid foods or battles with you over every bite. Whatever picky eating problem(s) your child has, you may wonder if it’s serious enough to seek help. Take this quick quiz to see how severe you little eater’s pickiness problem really is:
1. Is your child hungry going into meals?
____Yes. I limit snacks before meals so he/she should be hungry.
____No. It’s possible that he’s eating too much during the day and has no appetite come mealtime.
2. Do you/your partner also dislike the foods your child rejects?
3. Does his list of unacceptable foods remain fixed (or worse, continue to grow)?
____Yes. Once a food makes it on the “don’t like” list, it’s on there for good.
____No. It varies. Sometimes he’ll try a specific food, other times, he rejects it.
4. Does your child gag, choke, chipmunk food (store it in his/her cheeks) or spit food out during meals?
5. Is your child having trouble gaining weight?
____Yes. He/she has fallen under the normal growth curve.
Tally the number of “yes” responses and use the scoring guide below to figure out your total (a “no” response is worth 0 points). Read on to see what category your child falls into and for tricks to help her become a better eater.
Question 1: 1 point
Question 2: 1 point
Question 3: 3 points
Question 4: 3 points
Question 5: 6 points
Score: 0 points
Not Picky at All
Excellent news! To help your child keep up his or her good eating habits, make sure to:
• Avoid talking about food at the table. “We don’t always realize the subtle pressure we put on kids to eat,” says Caroline Kaufman, R.D.N., a registered dietitian nutritionist and media spokesperson for the California Dietetic Association. “Praising her for eating or saying things like, ‘Be a good girl today and finish your dinner,’ can lead her to take a bite even when she’s not hungry or doesn’t want to eat.” Taking the pressure off benefits both you and your child!
• Remember your responsibilities. “Parents are responsible for feeding—they choose what food is served, when and where. Kids are responsible for eating— they decide how much and whether they eat,” Kaufman says.
Score: 1 to 2 points
Probably a Passing Phase
“It’s totally normal for kids to have food jags, where they love a food one day and despise it the next,” says Kaufman. Use the tips below (as well as the ones above) to help bring this picky eating phase to a quick end:
• Schedule snacks. Limit snacks to two to three hours before meals so he has an appetite when he gets to the table. If that’s too long for your child, find a structure that works for you, and stick to it. And keep in mind, “the best time to introduce new foods to a picky eater is at the beginning of the meal, when he’s hungriest,” says Kaufman.
• Be a role model. If you plop a spoonful of broccoli on their plate without serving yourself one, you may be making the problem worse. “Kids pick up all of your food signals,” Kaufman says. “If your kids won’t eat healthy foods, it may be time for you to explore new foods together as a family.”
• Try, try again. It can take as much as a dozen times before a child accepts a food, so don’t give up. “If you need to take a break from a food, that’s fine. You can come back to it again when you’re ready,” she says. Also helpful: Prepare the same food in different ways. Your child may never touch raw cauliflower, but might love it roasted with parmesan cheese!
Score: 3 to 5
Keep an Eye on Your Eater
It’s very possible this behavior is still just a phase, but watch out for signs that the pickiness is getting worse (i.e. she starts eating an even more limited diet or begins to lose weight). These easy fixes (plus all the tips from the categories above) can help get your child eating and exploring again.
• Watch serving sizes. “Toddlers grow much more slowly than babies in their first year of life, and they don’t need as much food as most people think.” How much should you dole out? Aim for an ounce of meat or 2 to 3 tablespoons of beans, 1 to 2 tablespoons of veggies, 1 to 2 tablespoons or fruit and ¼ slice of bread. “You can always give them seconds if they’re still hungry.”
• See the big picture. An off day or two of eating isn’t enough to sound the alarm. “Instead of worrying about how much they eat at a given meal, think about nutrition in two week intervals,” Kaufman advises.
• Make cooking a team effort. Have kids choose some healthy options at the grocery store or farmers market to bring home. And let them be hands-on: “Cautious kids need to explore food with all their senses and get comfortable with it before they eat it. Allow them to be messy, smell it, touch it and taste it when they’re ready,” she says. Older kids can even help you in the kitchen; our Kids Cooking book can help with kid-friendly recipes!
Score: 6 or more
Time for a Check Up
If your child is not gaining weight or if she displays several of these behaviors, it’s worth making an appointment with your pediatrician. In the meantime, you can use these tips (and the tricks above) to make mealtimes less stressful for you and your little one.
• Set time limits. Meals should last no more than 30 minutes.
• Minimize distractions. Turn off the TV, put away toys, remove all electronic devices from the room. You don’t want anything that can pull your child’s attention from the meal.
• Offer something you know he likes. “Put a plate of cut-up veggies and whole-grain bread on the table with dinner,” she advises. That way, no matter what you serve, they can fill up on something that’s healthy.”