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Getting Picky Eaters to Pick Less and Eat More
By Mollie Aby-Valestrino

It's a common battle in many households and schools. You sit down to a meal prepared with love and care only to have a child refuse to eat it. You cajole, plead, bribe, and even threaten, but all to no avail. She is just not interested. If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. Many parents and teachers describe their children as "picky eaters." While there is no magic way to transform a picky eater to a young child begging for more spinach, the following suggestions offer some creative ways to expand their food horizons.

Use Amusing Props

  • Use wacky, disposable straws, fun sippy cups, or colorful spoons and forks at meals. (Remember, wacky straws can be difficult to clean, and may need to be disposed of after use.)
  • Help children make their own placemats. Have them draw and/or color some of their favorite nutritious foods on a piece of paper, then laminate it for use during meals and snacks.
  • Use permanent, nontoxic markers to write names or draw designs on
    cups and favorite utensils for each child.

Present Food Creatively

  • Use cookie cutters to cut sandwiches or pancakes into fun shapes.
  • Make "fun face" sandwiches, using an English muffin or a pita as the face and fruits and vegetables for features.
  • Give the meal a fun name. "Superman's Super Supper" sounds more appealing than meat and spinach lasagna.
  • Serve age-appropriate foods and serving sizes. Young children have small stomachs. Keep in mind their servings are generally 1/4 to 1/2 of an adult serving. If too much is put on the plate, the child may become overwhelmed.
  • Make meals colorful. Let kids make a rainbow on their plate! This is a fun way to assure a variety of nutrients.

Get Children Involved

  • Let children help with meal preparation. Using chef's hats and aprons makes it even more fun. Remember to keep safety in mind.
  • Include children in menu planning. At mealtime, recognize them for helping select the food.

Think Beyond the Table

  • Have a pretend restaurant or tea party. Let the child take your order and serve the food.
  • Nourish children with books on nutrition.
  • Let children become food detectives and investigate nutrition clues on food labels.
  • Sing songs about food and nutrition.

Fun Food Disguises

  • Sneak in veggies. Mix spinach, grated carrots or mashed peas into ground meat for hamburgers or spaghetti sauce. Use veggies as pizza toppings. Add diced cabbage and broccoli to lasagna. And just think of all the veggies you can hide in a stew or soup!
  • Make fruit "smoothies" for snacktime.

The Role of Parents and Teachers at Mealtimes
In addition to being creative and making food fun, it is important to know what your role is at mealtime. Here are some concepts to keep in mind.

Avoid Food Fights and Power Struggles
Children are quick to learn how much power they have when it comes to food. While well intended, a parent or teacher who tries to coerce a child to eat various foods may be making an issue of something that is best left a non-issue. Comments like, "If you eat your peas, you can have dessert," send children the message that food is a tool they can use to get what they want or to avoid what they don't want. Never use food as part of punishment or reward. Food should never be provided or withheld based upon a child's behavior or actions. Avoid telling a child he cannot have a snack if he doesn't clean his room. Rewards should also be avoided as a tactic to get a child to eat, especially when the reward is food. Promises like, "If you eat your dinner, we can go out for ice cream," tells a child he should eat even if he is full. Using food as a reward may lead to a dependence on food and the tendency to over eat.

Respect Their Food Preferences
Everyone has food likes and dislikes. Children are no different. Their taste preferences are continually expanding and changing, therefore, new foods should be introduced and reintroduced. If a child tries a food and doesn't like it, then he shouldn't have to eat it. But, don't give up. Repeated exposure to new foods is important. Some experts feel a new food has to be offered at least ten times. Try serving the food prepared in different ways and use some of the creative ideas previously mentioned.

Look at the Big Picture
Don't worry if a child refuses to eat much during a meal, or if all she wants to eat is the fruit dessert. Likewise, it is not a problem if a day or two goes by and she doesn't eat any vegetables. Look at her diet over a week or two. This perspective provides a better picture of total nutrient intake, and you will most likely see a regular intake of fruits and vegetables. Put your mind at ease knowing that while picky eaters may eat less variety, if offered nutritious foods, most children meet their nutritional needs and grow adequately.

Avoid Becoming A "Short Order Cook."
If a child is not interested in the meal you've prepared, don't feel the need to prepare something else. Instead, avoid the problem by including at least one food you know each child likes as part of the meal.

Make It a Family Affair
Families that eat together, stay together! Studies have shown that regularly scheduled family meals provide the structure necessary to help make mealtime enjoyable. Always sit down to dinner and have pleasant conversation with the entire family. Talk about your day, the dog, or the weather, but don't talk about how much is being eaten.

Mollie Aby-Valestrino is a Registered Dietitian specializing in pediatric and infant nutrition. She has worked for years in a hospital setting helping children and their families with special nutrition needs. She is currently working on a nutrition education program for schools.