Picky eaters. We’ve all seen them. Does your preschooler push away the spoon when you feed them? Does your preschooler shake their head “no” when you place their plate in front of them? If so, take heart: your preschooler is not the only picky eater out there.
When we see the picky eating issue,” says Dr. Ana Tanase, pediatrician at Crystal Run Healthcare in Middletown, “the first thing we look at is the growth chart and the weight and height. Most of these preschoolers are not underweight.” It’s not about the quantities but rather how the kids assimilate everything. “If the preschooler’s weight and height are under the normal limit, we will look at their eating routine,” says Dr. Tanase.
Try to be understanding of ages and stages when pickiness may be more prevalent. “Parents need to keep their cool and realize that there are developmental stages. Toddlers and preschoolers go on something we call ‘food jags’ where they get stuck on one or two foods and refuse to eat anything else,” says Nancy Case, outpatient dietician at St. Francis Hospital in Poughkeepsie. These fits can last two to three months taxing a parent’s patience and adding to their feeling overwhelmed.
“Eventually a new day comes when the preschooler no longer wants the hotdog and maple syrup, and move on to something else,” says Case. Preschoolers may also have a negative reaction to foods being combined which is why compartmentalized plates were invented. “A lot of kids,” explains Case, “do not like foods touching each other.”
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Texture means a lot
Every preschooler has a preference. Some children don’t like things that are mushy or have no boundaries, or prefer something they can pick up, like finger foods. “There could be a physical reason such as hearing problems, tonsil-related issues or adenoid problems where the child may prefer to drink because chewing is somehow painful to the jaw or mouth,” said Case. Other times, there may be a sensory processing disorder in which the preschooler reacts to the food based on how it looks, smells and feels. And sometimes it’s just normal develoment. “Try not to show frustration and turn the food issue into a conflict,” says Case.
Preschoolers like making food choices
Give your preschooler choices so he or she feels more in control. The items should not be fancy but should be introduced one at a time and in tiny portions. “Serve simple foods to a picky eater so he can try one flavor at a time,” says Case. If your child rejects a food, do not be discouraged. “Offer fruits, vegetables or meats in different ways because some preschoolers are more attracted to how it looks than how it tastes,” says Dr. Tanase.
You can even cut the vegetables or meats into different shapes. “It’s all about the presentation,” she says. Be considerate if your preschoolers is a natural vegetarian. You may be upset and feel he is not getting enough protein whereas the beans, cheese and yogurt may be meeting the child’s protein needs.
Making food fun
Have a routine. “Serve meals at the same time, every day so the body adjusts and starts to be hungry at the same time of day,” says Dr. Tanase. And be consistent. “If you’re getting your preschooler to eat a healthier diet, make sure everybody who is sitting down eats the same thing,” says Doug Patterson, manager at House of Nutrition in Poughkeepsie. You may even get into the habit of taking your child along when you go food shopping or getting him involved in the cooking process by helping to mix ingredients together. “He or she will have more pleasure trying food instead of not eating it,” says Dr. Tanase.
Homemade pizza is one dish that can be fun to make. “Let your preschooler pick out the toppings or create a design on the topping so he feels involved,” said Patterson. Cookie cutters can create designs out of sandwiches, and placing carrots and celery into other designs can make eating-time more fun.
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Just a few bites will do
Kids are going to eat when they’re hungry and if they don’t clean their plate, there’s no need to worry. “Preschoolers have smaller systems and they stay full for longer periods of time so just encourage them to eat a few bites of each food on the plate,” says Patterson.
And never punish a child for not eating, but rather have options available so your preschooler can eat when she feels inclined. “If you have a picky eater who’s not going to consume the right amount at a meal, snacks have to be maximized for nutritional value and not just for fun or taste value,” says Case.
The good news about picky eating is that preschoolers usually outgrow it. “Picky eating is more common than most people think and almost every child is a picky eater,” said Patterson. Change won’t happen overnight but the whole idea is that the more you can get them to try, the more they’ll try and the more they’ll like.
Remember to take a look at your own actions. “It starts in the home and sometimes if the adults are picky, the kids will be picky too,” said Tanase. By being a good role model and eating a wide variety of foods around your preschooler, you are giving him the exposure that just may motivate him to expand his nutritional horizons.
Lastly, do discuss with your preschooler’s pediatrician whether or not a multivitamin is a good idea to supplement your child’s diet.
Jamie Lober is dedicated to providing information for women and pediatric health topics. Reach her at Jamie@getpinkpower.com.