A Growing Wise Kids Column
Food is a hot topic among parents, and Picky Eaters top the list of frustrations. Not only is it frustrating to have food rejected, but it is even more worrisome when the only foods a child will consume lack adequate nutrition. Many authorities believe picky eaters are created, not born. After much debate, talking with experienced parents, personal experience, and research, I tend to agree.
Of course, there are many factors to consider when dealing with and preventing picky eating, including personal parenting choices. Whether you are trying to ward off this inconvenience or re-wire an existing pickiness problem, one of the following tips is bound to offer some assistance that will be a good fit with your family and parenting dynamic.
All Sides of Being Picky
There are a number of possible reasons for pickiness. First, we are born with unique food preferences. Some people like asparagus, and others just don’t! The same goes for texture and color. Of course, severe dislikes and repulsion should be respected in children.
Hunger–the actual physical response to the need for more energy–is a factor that is either overlooked or non-existent in many toddlers. In today’s world of processed food, sight and smell often stimulate a child’s desire for a certain food, with humger less often–or even never–providing the motivation to eat. Thus, a child often ends up eating only the foods he wants, not necessarily the foods he needs. A child who eats whenever and whatever he wants is rarely hungry and will be more likely to show pickiness. This can be a result of simply offering too much milk during snack time or allowing munching all day long.
After the first year of life, growth is not as fast as before. Thus, fewer calories are needed. At this time, a physical need for fewer calories can morph into pickiness. A refusal of food can cause the family frustration when they are attempting to please everyone at the dinner table. This is especially the case when you are striving to program a child’s taste buds to enjoy nourishing foods to optimize their health and brain function.
In the beginning stages of toddlerhood, pickiness is more commonly an issue of control. These little people are beginning to show their independence. Which food goes into their mouth is something they can control. Take it from me, force feeding a kid never works! (But most parents are tempted to try at one time or another.) Here is the good news: although children choose what actually goes in their cute little mouths, parents have control over what is served.
Parental influence changes once children become older and have more freedom to get their hands on outside food sources, such as in school or at a friend’s home. This is why it is important to teach them to enjoy wholesome foods when they are young. Catching them early allows you to make a powerful impact on their “savory-memory” library, which will last a lifetime.
Kids love to see a show, whether one of excited praise or the throes of exasperation. The more we worry and fuss, the worse the problem becomes. So relax and read on to learn more about techniques to help prevent and remedy a child’s overactive, choice-driven finickiness.
Prevent a Picky Attitude
Research suggests that breastfeeding can actually prevent pickiness. A study published in the April 2004 issue of Pediatrics showed that early introduction to different flavors may alter food preferences later in life. Breast milk exposes infants to different flavors through a mother’s varied diet early on, which is believed to encourage a wider palate later. Of course, this cornucopia of flavors is not present with formula.1 One school of thought holds that babies even become accustomed to a range of tastes when mothers eat a variety of foods during pregnancy.
As early as possible, little Oscar should be eating the same wholesome foods as the rest of the family. This is sometimes limited by digestive system maturity and the physical development of an infant. (See Nourishing a Growing Baby for more details.) When appropriate, mash, blend, or break up what the family is eating and feed it to baby. After a year of age, most children can partake in all the flavorful foods you prepare for the rest of the family.
Eat together as much as possible. The most pivotal element to encouraging a child’s acceptance of new foods is family mealtime. When family mealtime is pleasant, little Sara will likely want to eat what you are eating. If you start early, one hopes she will catch on to the fact that family mealtime involves choosing from the foods that are served.
A study reported in the Archives of Family Medicine found that kids who regularly sit down with their families for an evening meal make wiser food choices, eat more vegetables, and get more nutrients than those who do not.2 For older children, the American Psychological Association found that family mealtime plays an important role in helping teens deal with the pressures of adolescence, such as motivation for school, peer relationships, depression, and making better choices with drugs and alcohol. The researchers are not sure whether these effects are due to the stories shared, the sense of belonging, or just the time spent together. No matter, it works!3
Pay attention to the value you give food. This does not mean the planning, purchasing, and time you spend in the kitchen. Instead, be careful not to express emotion around preoccupations, such as how much is being consumed or your personal attitude towards a food. An example of a food often given too high a value is dessert. If dessert is given the value of a reward, dinner may only be consumed because of the promise of something sweet. But what if you don’t prepare dessert one night, or the ice cream tub runs out? Will the kids eat dinner?
If nutritionally sound sweet snacks are a part of a well-designed nourishing traditional diet, they lose that “high value” status and ultimately become less of a battle zone. Stimulating all the taste buds, even those geared toward sweet, in a well-designed meal tends to leave one feeling satisfied. Many parents find that offering a small portion of a sweet treat right along with the meal works well. It can be as simple as a piece of fruit or yogurt with a touch of maple syrup. Yes, this allows little Joey to eat the sweet item before, during, or after the rest of the meal. However, even if he starts with something sweet, he should still be hungry to continue. If not, adjustments to the meal or treat portion size are needed.
The goal is to avoid giving dessert such a high value that it becomes a nightly bargaining chip. This is not to say the occasional bribe is not worth its weight in gold in certain hair-raising situations. Nevertheless, the more focus you give dessert, the more a child will want it. Offer properly prepared, nutritionally-dense desserts and relax. Let it be part of life and it won’t be such an issue.
Who’s the Boss?
All moms and dads know that parenting is personal. No single form of teaching or structure will work for every child or parent. Below is a collection of thoughts, ideas, and tricks from first-hand experiences and should not be viewed as parenting advice. Take what you feel might work for you and leave the rest for others to judge for themselves.
As mentioned earlier, parents can control a toddler’s food choices. Although a child may not like everything that is put down on her tray, she can at least learn to give everything a try. Being an adventurous taster and learning to enjoy nourishing foods are invaluable habits to take into adulthood.
Small children do not have the wisdom to choose the best foods for their nutritional needs. Left to their own devices, most would gorge on fast food and cotton candy all day long. If your child is different, how fortunate! As your children grow, the fruits of your labor will truly be revealed when they begin to make the connection with the foods they eat and how they feel.
Parents must decide how much control they want a child to have over his food choices. I decided long ago I wanted to be a single-dinner cooking mom, taking likes and dislikes into account as much as possible. I personally spend a lot of time in the kitchen as it is, and although I spend that time out of love for my family, I want to enjoy their company when I am done.
As a parent, sometimes you feel like a short-order cook. At some point you have to decide what you are willing to deal with. If you are a one-meal type parent like me, but are dealing with a family where each member wants different foods, below are some action steps to consider to bring your family back from the depths of pickiness.
First, rule out hunger saboteurs. These include snacking too frequently, too much liquid served with and between meals, and allowing a child to consistently dictate what she will eat. Consider also underlying health conditions, such as acid reflux or food allergies, that may be causing intestinal discomfort and making food less appealing.
Try to keep regular meal times, which usually include breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, and dinner. This will help set a hunger schedule. Food should also be offered in the same place a majority of the time. Avoid letting little Susie run around all over the house with crackers and milk.
Offer a wide variety of foods. Allow the child to pick and choose what he would like to eat from what you have made available. If a food is deemed unlikable by the taste buds, things may change in another few weeks or a month. For the younger child, simply offering the food over and over again, up to 15 times, for them to see, smell, and taste may be the ticket. For the toddler, it is a good idea to keep the option open to try it down the road by saying something like “your taste buds must not be ready yet for that food.” Try again in a few weeks or months to see whether their taste buds have “matured.”
If your child begins to expand his food choices by this simple offering technique, your picky eater is cured! However, if his issue appears to stem more from stubbornness, as in the case of my little sugar-plum, some ideas with a bit more oomph may be in order.
The area to evaluate first is snack time. If little Timmy is getting too much at these mid-day meals, he most likely will not be hungry for the family meal. If this happens, cut back portion sizes at snack time or eliminate snack time altogether. Watch and determine what is best for your unique child. Offering something other than milk at snack time may be all that is needed to prevent filling up. Too much milk at the beginning of a meal can also put the kibosh on trying new foods or eating anything at all. Something to try is the one-bite, one-sip method. Once your little one takes a bite of food, he takes a swig of milk, and so on throughout the meal.
A quick note regarding beverages: Fruit juice is sugar water; avoid offering it at any time (see sidebar below). Milk should preferably be clean, whole and raw or fermented, and water should be filtered.
What if your precious child is hungry and still refuses to try the food you prepared? One experienced mother of a recovered picky eater I spoke with came up with the “one bite to be polite” rule. The hope is that after a bite he will decide he likes it and keep eating more; or at least tolerate the taste without complaining. When this happens, give tons of praise, high-fives, hugs, and kisses!
As far as the types of foods to offer, again refer to the article Nourishing A Growing Baby. In general, the most nourishing foods for children are animal fats and proteins. Start with these and then move to properly prepared vegetables and grains. Fruits and sweets of course tend to go down with less resistance.
When your little tyke does take one bite and truly dislikes the food, acknowledge his effort. He should not be forced to eat the food–at least for a while until his tastes change. When you’ve decided it is not worth the struggle getting him to eat more of it, take a deep breath, smile and move on to another food in the meal you prepared.
If mealtime is cut short because your little one chooses not to eat what is served, that same food can be offered as the next snack or request for food. Skipping a meal or two here and there will not cause any physical harm to a healthy child. However, start fresh with each sit-down family meal so you are asking them to eat the same food as you. Once little Gracie grasps the idea, she will most likely enjoy trying new foods and do it without the long, drawn out fuss-fest.
Although you can’t force your child to eat, you can teach him to at least try everything you serve the rest of the family. By the time a child is about 18 months of age, he is old enough to understand the choices you are presenting and simple instructions. Therefore, from toddlerhood up, these same principles apply.
Be consistent and stick to your newly established rules with gusto. Breaking down to fix your little one what he wants after refusing the food you have already prepared will prolong the problem and teach your little Benji that he can end up having exactly what he wants if he puts up a big enough fight. Similarly, put a limit on the length of mealtime. Kids will quickly learn that if they stall and can’t be persuaded to eat, there will be no food until the next mealtime.
The “one bite to be polite” lesson will also teach children to show love and respect to the person who has prepared the meal. At least taking one bite and not making a melodramatic scene about the food is not only more pleasant at home but invaluable when with friends and family.
While teaching a picky eater to reverse his ways, there may be some fussing, struggles, and even some tears. It is not about forcing a child to eat something he doesn’t like, which is unkind. It is a matter of teaching a child to understand that the family meal is for everyone, and he needs to choose from the variety offered. In the end, once your little one has figured out the rules of the dinner table, life will be much more agreeable for everyone!
Avoid Being Too Restrictive
While we shouldn’t give into our children’s every demand, we shouldn’t be too restrictive either. Goodies are part of life–plain and simple. We can’t choose what our kids eat forever; they will eventually be exposed to “unapproved” foods. Research indicates that a parent’s attitude at home about treats can affect what kids will do out in the world on their own. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that young girls are more likely to over-indulge in snack foods when not hungry when their parents tightly control what they eat.4 It is thought that being over-restrictive may focus a child’s attention away from their own hunger and fullness cues.
If you are feeding foods with the highest nutritional value and using proper preparation techniques, you can allow occasional treats without much worry. Of course, it is best to serve as few sweets as possible, but it is better that your children enjoy the foods you prepare than finding commercial “forbidden foods” more attractive because you were over-restrictive. Find your family’s happy balance.
Tricks of the “Icky” Trade
Whether or not you have a picky eater, getting kids of any age to consume foods that offer stellar nutrition can be a challenge. Here are some ideas to make it happen.
Involve the kids. Make food personal! Involve them with planning, shopping, and mealtime preparations. Just like earning the money to pay for that first car, experiencing the activity of preparing nourishing meals gives a different perspective to children about what they are putting into their mouths. They can tear lettuce, wash veggies, grate cheese, shake a bag of muffin ingredients, and measure out ingredients. Don’t forget cleanup participation!
Visit the source. Researchers at Texas A&M University discovered that children who spend around 30 minutes per week tending to a garden are more likely to eat vegetables.5 We can all benefit from spending time thinking about the different pieces of the food-growing process– sunshine, rich soil, water, time, care, planting, and harvesting. When children witness this process in action, they are more motivated to consume the end product. Start a garden, grow sprouts on the kitchen counter, visit an orchard, berry farm, or organic raw milk dairy, or take them fishing.
Be creative, but don’t go overboard. Make fun meals and snacks. Arrange carrot stick and cheese hair, olive-slice eyes, cherry tomato ears, bell pepper mustaches, and mushroom noses to look like a face.
Cut pancakes in the shape of little Sammy’s initials or stamp out a piece of heart shaped toast. Try finding a personalized place setting that he can call his own. Give funny names to foods, such as “green French fries” for asparagus or “cheese in the trees” for cheese covered steamed broccoli florets. Occasionally have “fun utensil night.” Instead of the typical fork and spoon, let everyone pick one or two of something different–spatulas, ice cream scoops or tongs. Another dinner table idea is to skip the everyday serving ware and offer dinner in fun containers, such as coffee mugs, glass sundae bowls, jello goblets, or that silver nut dish that you bring out only at the holidays.
Keep meals simple and loaded with nourishing, properly prepared whole foods. Avoid fancy, 5-star restaurant-type meals with strange ingredients and exotic or outlandish tastes; your kids will probably not partake.
Play with different textures. The mouth feel of food can influence your child’s acceptance. If a food is rejected in a certain form, try it another way! Instead of scrambling an egg, put it in a smoothie. Instead of chunky soup, blend it up. Be inventive!
Keep kids informed of what to expect. Post the meals for the week. This may take the surprise out of options that would have otherwise been rejected.
Some kids get overwhelmed. For younger aged children, offering too many choices or too much quantity can discourage eating. Try placing just a few bites of one food on their tray at a time. Once those are gone, try a few more.
Go beyond “Because it’s good for you!” Use “kidese” language to explain why your family is eating certain foods. For example, “white bread zaps vitamins from our bodies” or “fish makes us smart.” For those aspiring superheroes, tell them “grass-fed beef meatloaf will help you see better in the dark, jump higher, run faster, and think with lighting speed!”
Dip and spread. Kids love to be active with their food. Try yogurt for fruit slices, nut butter for carrots, or avocado dip for homemade corn chips. An easy dip idea is to blend together some crème fraiche or sour cream, a little steamed spinach with the moisture removed, and a dash of Annie’s Naturals Worcestershire sauce. It is fabulous with any veggie or homemade cracker.
Drink it. Smoothies are a nice way to get in extra nutrients and calories. Start with a base of raw milk and add either yogurt or kefir for the probiotics. Try adding a raw egg yolk and açai berry (available in the frozen food section of most health food stores) for an antioxidant boost. Many cod liver oils can also be camouflaged into a yummy-tasting smoothie. Include one or more of these nutrient-dense extras: coconut oil, milk, or cream, nut butters, avocado, spirulina, acerola powder, or cocoa or carob powder.
Add broth wherever possible. Broth is one of the most nourishing foods to feed your family. I love what my friend Blair has to say about her experience with broth. “Bone broths seem to really help people migrate toward nutrient-dense foods. They are so satisfying; they help people understand the connection between the gut and the palate.” Make sure to always have broth on hand–chicken is usually well-liked, but any homemade variety will do. Use it as the base for soups, make gravy regularly, serve it as a hot beverage with salt and seasonings, and use it in place of water to cook grains.
Make food a group thing. Just as kids will be more likely to try what they see other family members munching, watching other playmates may also spark a renewed sense of adventure, or at least a competitive edge, when it comes to braving new tastes.
Find a compromise and stick with it. For example, take a six-section plastic container and fill each section with something different, such as crispy nuts, fresh or dried fruit, and veggies. Fill one section with a sweet treat, like carob covered almonds or homemade candies. Allow the kids to snack out of this container during the day and refill the sweet section only once the entire thing is empty.
Be prepared, both in the kitchen and mentally. Not only is it a good idea to have your meals planned out and your ingredients well stocked, but being prepared for the mid-day munchies and the unexpected is paramount when it comes to kids and our hectic lives. Remember, preparedness is half the battle. Head off food scavenging or ravenous hunger by knowing what you are going to serve for breakfast, lunch, snacks, and dinner each day. Once you get a routine going with meal planning and preparation, it becomes second nature and will eventually take less time and energy.
Mentally, find courage in your convictions. Show strong confidence in your decisions about food. When you are at peace about what you are cooking and know why it is going to support the health of your family, others will observe your confidence and be inspired to go along!
If you have a picky eater on your hands, I sympathize! One or more of the above techniques is bound to offer some assistance in your journey. They have worked for numerous parents, including myself. Remember, take it nice and slow, and think “baby steps.” Stay strong, be positive, and keep trying new techniques to find what works to take the “icky” out of your picky eater.
Making Cod Liver Oil More Kid-Friendly
I would wager you or someone you know has memories of a grandmother chasing them around the house with a spoonful of cod liver oil. Although cod liver oil is one of the best superfoods for a child’s growth and neurological development, it can be challenging to get it down because of its funny smell and oily texture.
Advances in processing have turned the tide on the flavor of cod liver oil. The oil itself seems to have a milder taste and now there are numerous flavors. Go through the slew of options to find your child’s favorite–lemon, orange, peppermint, cinnamon. Or, add a few drops of your favorite edible essential oil to a plain variety.
The earlier you can start your little one on cod liver oil the better. This allows a child to become accustomed to the taste and feel. Use an eye dropper to give it to babies and toddlers.
Most children dislike taking cod liver oil on a spoon. An alternative is to mix it in a little water or fresh juice. Make this part of the morning ritual. Serve the mixture of cod liver oil and water or juice in shot glasses and invite your little cowboys to come up to the bar for their morning cowboy drink. Be sure to explain that the shot of “muscle juice” will help them grow up good-looking and strong, and will help them do well in school.
If this doesn’t work, try hiding it in a smoothie or oatmeal. Mixing it in cottage cheese or yogurt with berries, nuts, and honey may also work. Due to cod liver oil’s delicate nature, be sure to add it after the food has cooled.
Older children may prefer to take cod liver oil in capsules. Some kids might even chew the softgel capsules and call them “vitamin gummies.”
Keep plugging away every day, which is key to success. Put on a happy face, your attitude will affect how your children react. Oh, and of course, take it yourself! Tell them you wish your parents had given you cod liver oil!
Eggs: Getting to Yes!
Nowhere is pickiness more likely to turn up than in the consumption of eggs. Children very often have very strong opinions on how they like their eggs–some will eat them poached but not fried, some will eat them fried but only if the white is congealed, some will eat them scrambled but only if no white is showing!
The important thing to remember is that the goal is to get your children to eat eggs, and the way to prepare eggs for your children is the way they will eat them. So, it’s best not to take a firm stand when it comes to serving your children eggs–go ahead and prepare them the way they want them, even if it means using an egg beater instead of a fork to get those scrambled eggs really well mixed, or putting a top on when you are cooking fried eggs so the white is congealed but the yolk still runny. A little runny white in a fried egg may turn a child off eggs for life! Many children do not like the soft texture of eggs–serving them with crisp bacon (no-nitrate, of course) or fried whole grain toast often solves this problem.
In cases where a child just refuses to eat eggs–and gags or throws up when you try to force it–try mixing raw egg yolks in smoothies or with cooked rice. Or, serve homemade ice cream made with lots of egg yolks often. (It is not a good idea to feed raw egg whites and the yolk is the most nutritious part of the egg anyway.)
Hide Those Organ Meats!
In most cultures, liver is the first solid food given to infants. If you have given your baby liver, she may have no trouble eating liver and other organ meats in various forms as she grows up, including a weekly meal of calf’s liver.
However, most modern children dig their heels in when it comes to undisguised organ meats. If this is the case with your child, first try liver spreads and paté, well salted–they may love these foods.
Organ meats can also be hidden. Try putting some ground heart in hamburger or meat loaf, or finely chopped liver in spaghetti sauce or chile. Finely chopped organ meats–everything from sweetbreads to kidneys–can be hidden in comfort foods like empanadas, tacos, enchiladas and lasagna. The important thing is to chop very fine, use lots of seasoning and not tell. . . then they will never know!
Children love crispy things, especially with soft, nutritious foods like cream cheese or liver paté. It’s easy to make your own crispy chips as an alternative to commercial varieties, which are loaded with bad fats and oils.
Spread a thin layer of lard or coconut oil on sprouted whole grain or corn tortillas, or on very thinly sliced sourdough bread. Cut them into triangles or fun cookie-cutter shapes and place on a baking sheet. Lightly salt and cook at 350 degrees for about 5 to 10 minutes, keeping a close eye to prevent burning. Once brown on one side, flip and cook a few more minutes on the other.
“Crispy pancakes” are another great crunchy food that children love. When you make pancakes, make some extra small ones and then let them dry out in a warm oven. They can be used like crackers and served with cream cheese mixed with seasonings or honey, apricot or apple butter, paté, meat or cheese.
Creative Face Base Recipes
These recipes will make nice faces to decorate with other foods or cut into shapes for a fun meal. They are good even without the funny face for other family members too!
Egg yolk pancake: Put one to two free-range egg yolks into a bowl and mix in desired ingredients, such as cooked carrots, potato, broccoli, chicken, beef, or fish. Season with sea salt and/or seaweed. Stir and pour into pan with hot coconut oil. Cook until flippable and cook on the other side until browned.
Veggie fritters: Grate half a zucchini, one to two carrots (depending on size) and a small potato (about 2 cups). Squeeze as much water out as possible (a dish towel works well). Add four tablespoons sprouted, dried, and ground whole grain flour, a free-range egg, and 1/2 teaspoon salt and a dash of pepper to taste. Stir until well blended. Heat a skillet with lard (or coconut oil) and place small dollops of fritter batter in the skillet. Flatten and fry on both sides until golden brown.
Many parents are under the impression fruit juice is a healthy childhood beverage since it comes from fruit, but what if I told you it is no better than soda? Consider the following “strikes” against this commonly consumed beverage and judge for yourself.
Strike 1: Fruit juice is concentrated sugar, even the 100% natural varieties with “no sugar added.” When compared to the average soda, the common fruit juices apple and orange (fresh or from concentrate) contain the same amount of sugar, (approximately six teaspoons per 8-ounce serving.)a These sources of concentrated sugars in general are destructive to health, however, fructose, the main type of sugar in fruit juice, is especially damaging.b,c Juice “cocktails” are worse, with added sugar, artificial flavors and other synthetic ingredients.
Strike 2: Fruit juice leads to troubling symptoms. Mal-absorption of the sugars in fruit, particularly the sugar-alcohol sorbitol found in apple juice, can cause diarrhea and digestive upset.d Excessive fruit juice consumption is also linked to failure to thrive in infants and short stature in some children.e
Strike 3: Fruit juice spoils a child’s appetite for nourishing foods. Fruit juice, aka sugar water, contains approximately 250 calories per 8 ounces,a with none of the fiber found in the whole fruit. Not only does drinking this beverage make it more likely a child will refuse food, but the excess liquid calories has been linked to the growing obesity problem in this age group.f
The two best beverages to offer a child are clean water and whole raw milk from cows grazing on green pastures. If your child is already addicted to fruit juice, wean him off by first diluting it with water. Then, slowly work the beverage out of your house for good.
References for this sidebar
- Julie A. Mennella, PhD, Cara E. Griffin, BS and Gary K. Beauchamp, PhD. Flavor Programming During Infancy. Pediatrics. Vol. 113 No. 4 April 2004, pp. 840-845.
- Matthew W. Gillman, MD; Sheryl L. Rifas-Shiman, MPH; A. Lindsay Frazier, MD; Helaine R. H. Rockett, MS, RD; Carlos A. Camargo, Jr, MD; Alison E. Field, ScD; Catherine S. Berkey, ScD; Graham A. Colditz, MD Family Dinner and Diet Quality Among Older Children and Adolescents, Arch Fam Med. 2000;9:235-240.
- Presentation: “Supper’s On! Adolescent Adjustment and Frequency of Family Mealtimes” by Blake Sperry Bowden, Ph.D., Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and Jennie M. Zeisz, Ph.D., DePaul University. Session 2220, August 16, 1997, Sheraton Chicago and Towers, River Exhibition Hall (E-5). Found at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1997/08/970821001329.htm on January 3, 2006.
- Jennifer Orlet Fisher and Leann L Birch Eating in the absence of hunger and overweight in girls from 5 to 7 y of age. Am J Clin Nutr 2002 76: 226-231.
- 85th Annual Meeting of the American Dietetic Association October 25, 2002.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2006.