“He’s a great eater!” bright-eyed new parents gush as they
beam at their bouncing newborn. Fast-forward several years, and the one-time
“great eater” shuns vegetables, milk, and anything resembling protein, choosing
instead to subsist on a diet of goldfish crackers and juice. Sound anything
like your child?
If so, you’re not alone — most young children are somewhat
picky about food, says pediatric nutrition specialist and registered dietitian Allison
Lachowitz. But you don’t have to turn into a short-order chef to please your
picky child. Read of for age-by-age tips on helping a picky eater expand her
Read more: Ensure your preschooler is getting proper nutrition
PRESCHOOL YEARS 1-5: Veggie wars
According to Linda Piette, author of “Just Two More Bites!
Helping Picky Eaters Say Yes to Food,” the toddler and preschooler years are a
prime time for picky eating habits to surface: tots and young children are
naturally inclined to test limits.
In cases of extreme pickiness, she encourages parents to
consider having a child evaluated for underlying causes like swallowing
difficulties, digestion problems, or food allergies, which can impact a child’s
willingness to eat.
For otherwise healthy children who simply prefer pasta to
vegetables, Lachowitz tells parents to tone down the veggie-pressure.
“If a child skips vegetables at one meal or refuses to eat
them for a few days, it's not the end of the world,” she says. Instead of
forcing veggie-hating kids to choke down peas and carrots, encourage a variety
of fresh fruits, which offer many of the same nutritional benefits as
Presentation matters, too: arrange vegetables on the plate
in a fun way, and provide a rainbow of colors to ensure a balance of vitamins
Read more: Expert answers common questions about picky eaters
ELEMENTARY YEARS 6-12: Chef mom
During the chaotic, busy school years, parents of picky
eaters may be tempted to head off battles by fixing each child a separate meal.
But morphing into a short-order chef at mealtimes won’t solve the problem, and
just creates more work (and eventually, resentment) for parents. Instead of
falling into this common trap, involve school-age children in shopping and meal
planning. “When you work with a selective eater, instead of against him, you
will be more successful,” Lachowitz notes.
Try to include one to two items in each meal that everyone
will enjoy, and then prepare the rest of the meal normally without making
excessive accommodations for a picky eater. Encourage a child to try the main
course without forcing him to eat (nearly always a losing battle). And never
use food as a reward, even for finishing another food (“If eat your salad, you
can have some ice cream!”). You don’t want your child to view vegetables as
their ticket to dessert, says Lachowitz.
Read more: How feeding our kids has changed over the years
TEEN YEARS 13-18: Good health to go
Many children leave fussy eating behind in early childhood.
But for some, eating habits become more problematic during the tween and
teenage years, as busy schedules, after-school jobs, and socializing enable
picky eaters to consume more of their meals away from parents’ watchful
eyes—which can make for a few nutritional nightmares, like lunching on nothing
but French fries and nacho cheese, or worse, skipping meals altogether.
Despite the challenge of an on-the-go schedule, parents
shouldn’t throw in the towel when it comes to teen eating habits: teens’
growing bodies and developing brains still require hearty nutrition. Together
with your teen, glance at the week’s calendar and develop a “game plan” for
quick meals: teens can toss a wrap, salad, or sandwich, which can be made in
advance, in a bag along with dried fruit, nuts, and sparking water. Learning to
make a few fast, healthy meals is a skill that will serve teens well in college
and beyond, notes Lachowitz. “Hopefully, they’ll continue these good habits for
Read more: Are vitamins worth it? Local experts weigh in
Malia Jacobson is a
nationally published health and parenting journalist and mom of three.