If you have a picky eater in the family, you're all too familiar with the frustrations of trying to get him to dig in at mealtime. No matter what you try — pleading, bribery, guilt — nothing seems to get a forkful down. Pediatric nutritionist Linda Piette, R.D., M.S., has written a new book about the subject called Just Two More Bites! Helping Picky Eaters Say Yes to Food. We asked her to address some concerns every parent has about their reluctant eater, including: Is picky eating a passing phase? How can I be sure he is getting the right nutritional balance? How can I get him to try a diverse range of foods? Her best advice: avoid battles.
Parent & Child: Are all picky eaters alike?
Linda Piette: No. It depends on several things. Toddlers are the typical story. At around 2, your child's growth slows significantly, and he exerts his independence. That means he'll start refusing foods because he can. Older children often have so-called food jags, eating only one or two selected foods day after day. Then there are children who have developmental delays or other special needs. Autistic children, for example, often have rigid food routines. Some children are just more stubborn than others, or more sensitive to new tastes, textures, even smells.
P&C: What is the best way for a parent to encourage a reluctant toddler to eat?
Piette: Give him some control, but not total control. Let's say your 2 year old no longer happily accepts the lunch you offer. Instead of giving him one sandwich and then, when he refuses, dumping that one and making another, try offering him two choices to begin with. That gives him some say, but doesn't require you bowing to a little dictator.
P&C: How about older children?
Piette: You have to be smarter with older kids, because they're smarter. Most young children are more likely to try a new food if they see other kids eating it, or if it's served in a different setting, such as school or daycare, someone else's house, and so on. If you can make a show of, say, pointing out your child's cousin or friend eating the broccoli, that often works. Try to get your child involved in a new food. Take him shopping with you; have him help you pick out a recipe or prepare it.
P&C: Is it okay to bribe a child to try a new food or to get him to eat?
Piette: Bribing teaches kids to not like the food you're trying to get them to eat, and places emphasis on the food you're bribing them with. The "good" food becomes a necessary evil. For a similar reason, it's not a good idea to become a short-order cook. In that case, kids learn that if they hold out long enough, they'll get something better to eat. Try making a rule that dinner is what you've made, but if someone really isn't interested in the pork chops, they have the choice of one other standard, healthy option, such as a bowl of cereal with milk. And that's it. It helps avoid battles.
P&C: How can you tell if a picky eater has developed a nutrition problem?
Piette: If your child is not following an established curve on the growth chart, talk to your doctor. It's the first sign of poor nutrition. Also, watch your child's developing eating skills. Generally, a child should be able to drink from a cup by 16 months and eat table foods by his first birthday. Does the child gag when he eats? Or vomit? Now and then that's perfectly normal, but if it goes on for a long time, that could be a sign that there's an eating problem that goes beyond a developmental phase.