Turning Picky Eaters into Healthy Adults

Turning Picky Eaters into Healthy Adults

Every time we think this whole parenting thing is getting easier and more fun, we have days like yesterday.

Our six-year-old didn't eat much lunch and “forgot” to get anything to drink from the cafeteria. By the time 6:00 p.m. rolled around, she was not a pleasant child. She didn't want to eat what Daddy cooked, then decided she did want it, but since it was now cold, she wanted something else.

We told her to eat what was on her plate. Not that she had to sit there until she finished, but that we were not going to cater to her every whim.

I'm not sure how long she cried and threw a fit. It felt like an eternity. It's so hard. Why does it have to be so hard?? The only thing that saves me from a pit of parenting gloom and despair is that I know we are not alone. There are lots of picky eaters out there, and they do not starve. Most do eventually grow out of it.

In the meantime, I have to stick to my guns and do what I feel is best, which is to not freak out and have a war with her about eating, not eating or her food choices.

Why? Because kids are naturally intuitive. They eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. 

Can you imagine??

Picky eater recipe

Dietitians and other experts say the food war is not one worth having. Judy Kolish, registered dietitian for BCBSTX, says parents should decide what to buy and what to serve, and kids should decide what and how much to eat.

“Adults do not like to be told what to eat, and neither do children. The more we try to control a child’s eating, the more rebellious they can become. Offering variety, balance and moderation will lead your child to choose what is best but parents have to trust that, and it’s hard.”

When I first spoke with Judy about this approach (called the Division of Responsibility), I thought she was insane. I thought this would never work in a million years. “But, she’ll starve! Or only eat cookies! We have to make her eat something. Don’t we?”

Apparently not.

She never really ate anything that night, she went to bed cranky and we went to bed stressed out. But this morning, as I was packing her sandwich for school, I asked, “Do you want cookies or cherries with your lunch today?” And she said something I never would have at her age: “hmmm, it doesn’t matter. I really like them both.”

I think we have hit a turning point. For a war that’s not being fought, victory sure tastes sweet!

Here are a few tips to help keep dinner with your little ones battle-free:

  • If you currently make kids separate meals, stop. The adult’s role is to be the provider and the child is the consumer.
  • All of those benefits you’ve heard about regarding eating family meals together fall to the wayside if dinner time is spent bickering, bribing or begging. Keep it peaceful and stress-free.
  • Get the kids involved! Believe it or not, many kids really enjoy helping out in the kitchen. Most toddlers aged 2 and up can do things like wash produce, practice stirring or pull apart lettuce leaves.
  • Be a good role model. This is where it can get really tricky. Do you mindfully plow through junk food while watching TV? Your kids will, too. Does your spouse scoff at trying anything other than meat and potatoes? Your kids will, too. If you want to have a healthy eater, first be a healthy eater.
  • Offer lots of variety. Most kids really enjoy fruits and snack vegetables like baby carrots. A favorite meal at our house is grilled chicken and vegetables. We know Kaia likes the chicken, but she doesn’t like the veggies and that’s ok. Throw a bag of baby carrots out with it (whatever your little likes) and you’re done.
  • Avoid emphasizing or labeling “good” and “bad” foods.

The Division of Responsibility feeding approach is recognized as a best practice by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, The American Academy of Pediatrics, Head Start and more.