Picky eating in youngsters -- it's about independence

September 07, 2010

University Park, Pa. -- We all have foods we dislike, and some of us might be termed picky eaters, but when we have to deal with a youngster who refuses to eat the food we prepare -- the experience can be frustrating, acknowledges an expert in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

Picky eating tends to rear its head during the preschool years, a time when young children are learning to assert themselves. "Picky eating may be a child's attempt to be independent -- which is a natural part of development," said registered dietitian Katherine French, a nutrition, diet and health educator with Penn State Cooperative Extension in Mercer County.

"Many young children also go through 'food jags,' during which they want to eat certain foods every day -- even every meal -- also in an effort to show independence," explained French. Children quickly realize that refusing foods or demanding the same foods every day can upset parents and caregivers and become a powerful tool for attention.

Despite caregivers' apprehension that their picky eaters may not be consuming enough variety or nutrition for good health, French maintains that children will get enough nutrients through the week for proper health and growth.

"As children's bodies grow, there are periods when they may need more or fewer calories," said French. "Young children go through growth periods during which they may eat only one good meal a day and pick at food at other meals, but as long as your child is growing normally and has a normal energy level, there's no cause for concern."

There's a difference between being picky and not being hungry, however. Avoid juice, milk and snacks for at least an hour prior to meals. Offering food and drinks close to mealtime raises blood sugar and keeps a child feeling full and not wanting the meal's food.

This is a sign that the child is self-regulating his or her intake. "Young children will not go hungry," reassured French. She suggests that in some cases, parents are expecting their child to eat larger portions of food than the child actually needs. "Continue offering regular meals and snacks," said French, adding that if growth is a concern, parents should consult a pediatrician.

French offered some tips for dealing with picky eaters:

-- Introduce only one new food at a time and offer it alongside more familiar foods. Let the child know what it will taste like: sweet, salty or sour.

-- Be patient. Don't force food upon children, merely offer it. Children may refuse a food eight to 10 times before even trying it.

-- Ask that the child just taste a food, which can be just a tiny bite. By teaching them how to politely spit food into a napkin, parents can offer kids the option of not swallowing the food. Research shows that children are more likely to try new foods if not swallowing is an option.

-- Involve the child with meal preparation. Children are more likely to eat foods they've prepared. Simple tasks such as washing produce, stirring batter or setting the table are easy options.

-- Minimize distractions during the meal. Turn off the TV, cell phones, hand-held games and other electronics. Try to make mealtime a pleasant time for positive interactions.

-- Don't become a "short-order cook," "Cooking items especially for the picky eater prolongs the child's behavior, since he or she is being rewarded with the 'special' food they really want -- even if it's macaroni and cheese every night," said French.

-- Be consistent in offering structured meal and snack times. By not caving in to a child's demands, the child will quickly realize that he or she is expected to eat the food the rest of the family is eating.

-- Don't offer dessert as a reward. This elevates dessert as a special food and makes the food you want them to eat first the enemy.

Parents should take the negative focus off the eating behavior. "Focus on the positive aspects of a child's eating and not the food," said French. "Don't punish your child for not eating well."


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Last Updated November 18, 2010