Dealing with a discerning diner
Do you have a picky eater? Here’s how to take the food fights out of mealtimes.
6 strategies for staying sane with a picky eater:
• Skip the labels: Calling a child a picky eater has negative associations. Try something less loaded like choosy chowhound or discerning diner. Better yet, try not to mention it at all.
• Stay neutral: Avoid yelling, nagging, and bribing, which are likely to backfire. Take the drama out of dinner: simply serve a meal, have a conversation about another subject, and clear plates with uneaten food without showing emotion.
• Accommodate, within reason: A child's particular palate should not dominate the dinner table. That said, make sure there's something offered that your child likes.
• Offer healthy options: Michael Pollan's mantra: Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much. These tips are worth keeping in mind when making meals. Unsure about what makes a balanced diet? Visit My Plate for ideas.
• Experiment with seasonings and textures: Dipping veggies in salad dressing can turn a no-go food into a go-to food. Steamed carrots may get passed over while roasted ones are gobbled up.
• Relax: Remember, once the food hits the table, your work is done. So let your kid do his job and enjoy your dinner.
By Sarah Henry
For every child who eats oysters, offal, and okra there are plenty of kids whose diet consists mostly of plain pasta, cold cereal, and French fries.
Parents of particular eaters can find mealtimes both a challenge and a chore. There's concern, too, over whether a kid with a limited diet is getting all the nutrients needed for growth and development — especially in light of the recent collapse of a 17-year-old British girl who’d survived on an exclusive diet of fast food chicken nuggets since age two.
Doctors diagnosed the teen, who says she's never eaten fruits or vegetables, with anemia; she is also being treated for nutritional deficiencies. Her mother, according to news accounts, has tried to get her daughter to eat a more varied diet.
So what's a parent of a choosy chowhound to do? Nutritionist Ellyn Satter, author of Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family and Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense, has reassured thousands of stressed parents with her straightforward advice. Satter's mealtime mantra: "It's the parent's job to plan meals, cook, and get dinner on the table," she says. "A child is responsible for what, how much, or even whether, he eats." It’s a concept, she says, that many parents have a tough time getting their head around.
Satter's reputation for helping families handle eating issues is firmly rooted in what she calls her responsibility of feeding philosophy. Serve food family style, she says, which leaves the decision about what gets consumed solidly in your child’s corner. "You make a variety of foods available — don't limit the menu to only the food your child will eat," explains Satter. "Take 'no' for an answer, and set the tone for a calm, pleasant mealtime environment without pushing or pressuring."
What to serve?
Healthy meals consist mostly of a range of fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and carbohydrates (preferably whole grain). High-fat, high-sugar, high-calorie, and low-nutrient foods — such as sodas, sweets, and chips — are best kept as an occasional treat, not a regular mealtime feature.
Sounds simple enough, but any parent of a picky eater knows that most nights their child will nibble on a small range of acceptable foods. Food blogger Bettina Elias Siegel has chronicled her veggie phobic son's refusal to eat any vegetables for six years. Six years. That fact doesn't seem to faze Satter, who counters that the child will come around, likely in his teens, as long as he has repeated exposure and no badgering to eat his greens.
For parents who value a diverse diet and edible exploration — and who flinch when perfectly good food winds up in the compost bin — dinnertime can become a battleground. Debbie Koenig, author of Parents Need to Eat Too, documents her ongoing food fights with son Harry, 6, on her blog.
Koenig has resorted to tactics familiar to other parents of fussy eaters: bribing, rewarding, and cooking with her son in an effort to expand his edible universe. She recently revisited Satter's strategies to put a stop to the culinary conflict in her home, which had escalated, she says, because of her own control issues.
Parents of multiple children offer perhaps the best evidence that parents should not take a picky palate personally — or as a sign of failure on the feeding front. "We've fed our kids all the same food and we eat a healthy, balanced dinner together almost every night." says Elizabeth Ozer, mom to Sam, 16, Max, 14, and Emilia, 7.
"Our eldest had sophisticated tastes from a young age, with risotto a favorite before he could say the word clearly. Our middle child went through a phase where he'd basically only eat fried foods like chicken fried rice, and our youngest likes a variety of foods while avoiding others," she adds. The family compromised by cooking fried foods at home in canola oil — a healthier choice than fast food versions — and always had other options available — such as salad — at every meal. It worked. "Today, our middle son eats salads, vegetables, and mussels, which are his favorite food," says Ozer. "He still enjoys French fries — which go well with mussels — and he is a healthy, fit teenager who likes most foods now."