Child-Feeding Expert andVictoria BC Dietitian (Nutritionist) Kristen Yarker, MSc, RD Answers Is It Okay To Feed Young Children Spicy Food. Babies and Spicy Food too.Read More
I’m often asked my opinion about what vegetable is the healthiest. I also hear the “best-Mommy” contest that happens on the playground where each parent tries to one-up each other bragging about what weird & healthy veggie their child loves. It goes something like this:
“My Johnny loves carrots.”
“MY Suzie loves broccoli.”
“WELL, MY Nicolas loves kale.”
“Guess what. MY Olivia loves Brussels sprouts. Eats them like candy. Can’t get enough of them.”
You get the picture.
I understand why people ask me about veggies. And why parents feel pressured. The amazing powers of specific vegetables often are the subjects of headlines. It makes a great sound-bite. It’s a great way to sell newspapers & magazines.
But as is often the case, that which makes a great sound-bite isn’t always what’s true. Because it’s been pulled out of context, the sound-bite ends up being only partly-true.
Science’s understanding of exactly what it is in veggies that’s so good for us is crude. We’re constantly learning of new healthy nutrients. For example, when I was studying human nutrition as an undergraduate in the late 1990’s, I was taught that white veggies didn’t have any healthful substances. They may provide flavor and crunch, but they were nutritional zeros. However, we now know that onions, garlic, and their other cousins such as leeks, have healthful nutrients like antioxidants.
While science is constantly discovering new nutrients, what’s found again and again (and again) is that the people who eat the most veggies are the healthiest. Period.
I also like to balance current science with the tried-and-true. And, when I look at traditional diets around the world, I see that human beings have survived and thrived eating all sorts of plant foods.
Let me be clear. I’m not denying that dark green veggies (like kale) and brightly-coloured veggies (like carrots and purple cabbage) are really healthy. They’re fantastic choices! What I’m saying is to not consider veggies such as cucumber and celery as empty junk. While they’re today’s zeros, who knows if they will be tomorrow’s super-stars. And, they’re healthier than most processed foods which kids typically eat if they’re not eating veggies.
So don’t stress if your picky eater doesn’t like today’s super-star veggies.
When it comes to veggies, it’s about quantity. And, variety.
Instead of relying on the magic of any one vegetable (and trying to force your picky eater to eat it), enjoy a wide variety of veggies. Introduce your little one to many different veggies (and repeat those introductions, and repeat, and repeat…). Be a veggie variety role model yourself. Encourage your little one to enjoy the wide, wide world of veggies in all colours of the rainbow. Together explore all the different tastes and textures.
And celebrate when your little one eats ANY veggies - whether it’s kale chips or that French Breakfast radish that the Farmer convinced him to try at Saturday’s Farmers Market, or…
So, what’s my answer when I’m asked what’s the healthiest vegetable? Answer: The one that you’ll eat (because it doesn’t matter how healthy any veggie is – if you won’t eat it – it can’t do you any good).
Photo credit: Keenan Loo on Unsplash
Usually I write my blogs with tips and advice for parents. But I know that there are a lot of Early Childhood Educators, daycare providers, nannies, and other important caregivers in our community. Today’s message is for you.
The other day, I received an email from a parent who has influenced her children to be good eaters by using the techniques that I share here. Her email was simply entitled “rant”. Here’s what this frustrated mama said about her experience with her daughter’s first month in kindergarten:
“Petunia’s* old daycare would always dictate what she was allowed to eat out of her lunch kit and in what order. Fruit/veggies, then sandwich, then yogurt… don’t send cookies.
AND NOW I’M HAVING ISSUES WITH HER AT KINDERGARTEN
So of course, she’s not eating any of her multiple fruit/veggie options. Not even when I cut the peel off the apple and provide caramel (cream cheese) dip for them after she’s agreed that that is how she would like to eat them.
I asked daycare over and over again to stop dictating her lunch choices. Petunia has declared kindergarten awesome because she can eat whatever she wants.”
* Name changed for privacy.
I wish that this was an isolated incident. But it’s by far not the only time that a parent has expressed their frustration with me. I knew that I needed to share it with you, so you could see the unintended consequence of your actions.
It’s only with good intentions that early childhood caregivers ask kids to eat their veggies first. You care about kids – otherwise this wouldn’t be your profession. You want kids to get the nutrition from the veggies.
Unfortunately, you’re having the opposite effect than you intended.
Forcing kids to eat veggies first only reinforces that veggies are something awful. Something that you need to get over with so that you can get to the shiny prize of the treats. The consequence is that when kids no longer have a gatekeeper around, and they can make their own food choices, they go after the forbidden foods and ignore the forced foods.
That’s what’s happening with Petunia now. At Kindergarten there is no adult gatekeeper making her eat her veggies and fruit. So she isn’t.
I know that you’re choosing your actions because you want kids to eat their veggies. But you’re actually teaching them to NOT choose to eat veggies. Oops.
For those of you working in licenced facilities here in BC, I have another reason for you to re-consider your actions. The regulations state:
48. (4) “A licensee must ensure that children are not
(b) forced to consume any food or drink,”
By dictating in what order kids must eat their meal, you are forcing kids; therefore, you are breaking the regulations.
What to do instead?
- Allow kids to eat whatever they want, in whatever order they want, from the foods that were packed for them.
- Incorporate vegetables and fruit into your curriculum.
- Organize activities that involve veggies and fruit.
- Eat with children at meals and snacks. Role model eating your veggies.
Communicate with parent about what veggies/ fruits were eaten each day so that parents can plan meals and snacks at home to create balanced nutrition throughout the day.
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It’s the second week of September. You made it through all the back-to-school craziness. You bought new clothes, school supplies, even figured out the family schedule for pick-up and drop-off. You likely browsed Pinterest, Instagram and Google for healthy, fun packed lunch ideas and dutifully engaged your inner food stylist so that your child had lunches that they loved.
Many clients have told me the stories of being in the dreaded line-up of parents doing school pick-up. Giving their child a quick hug and then opening the lunchbox to see what was eaten. Or, to be more accurate, to see what wasn’t eaten. This lunchbox check isn’t just a simple status update on what food your child digested that day. It’s a measure of your parenting skills, done in-front of a firing squad of your judgmental peers.
Or, at least that’s how it feels.
The purpose of my message today isn’t to jump on the judgment bandwagon. Quite the opposite in fact. I’m here today to let you know that whether or not your child ate their lunch isn’t a measure of your parenting skills. It isn’t about you at all. So drop the mommy-guilt and daddy-guilt. Let’s re-focus on your child. Because, this situation is actually about your child.
Why Kids Don’t Eat Packed Lunch
The ability to eat lunch in the highly distracting school environment is a life skill. And like any life skill, some kids pick it up easily and some find it more challenging. How quickly kids pick up on this new skill isn’t a measure of how “good” or “bad” a kid they are. And, it isn’t a measure of how “good” or “bad” a parent you are. I’ve helped thousands of families over my career. In my experience the kids who find eating lunch at school more challenging tend to be:
- Very social,
- Easily distracted, or
- Sensitive souls
How to Help Kids Eat Packed Lunch
In time, your child will pick up the important life skill of successfully eating a meal in a distracting environment. Here are some actions that you can take to support your child in learning this life skill. And, actions you can take to make sure that they are meeting their nutrition needs throughout the day.
- Make sure containers are easy to open. Have your child practice at home so you can determine if they can do it without help.
- Cut food into small pieces. Yes, this means cutting foods into smaller pieces than kiddos can handle at home. Because a smaller piece requires a shorter attention span. For example, cut sandwiches into 4 pieces, cut wraps into sushi-like round bites, or pack apple slices instead of a whole apple.
- Plan an extra big breakfast and after-school snack to make up for a missed lunch. This isn’t the time to restrict afternoon snacks to smaller amounts of food. Allow kids to have as much to eat at snack-time as they are hungry for. Serve healthy foods from a variety of food groups. An easy way to do this is to allow kids to open up their lunchboxes and eat their lunch leftovers (i.e. the majority of their lunch) as their snack. If you packed it as a lunch meal, it’ll be a healthy choice for an afternoon snack. With one caveat – make sure that foods are still safe – i.e. foods that need to be refrigerated haven’t been at room temperature too long.
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Banana lentil muffins. Yes, you read that right - banana LENTIL muffins. Lentils can be used in baking.
Including lentils in baking is a fantastic way to reduce the amount of refined flour we eat and get more iron, fibre, and protein. Take note parents of picky eater kiddos who don't like most protein or iron-rich foods. Tip: Serve the muffins with a source of vitamin C (such as berries) to maximize absorption of that iron.
We made this recipe for mini muffins, so that they're a good size for little hands (and tummies). Us big kids can choose to eat 2 - 3 of them in the place of a regular-size muffin. Or bake yours in a regular-size muffin tray and adjust the baking time. We didn't test the baking time for regular-size muffins so I don't have a time to give you (sorry). Keep a close eye on them and use the ever-trusty toothpick-in-the-centre test.
Banana Lentil Muffins Ingredients
- 1 cup of ripe bananas (or 2 ripe medium bananas)
- 1 cup red or green lentil puree (1 cup of lentils boiled in water for 40-45 minutes, drained then pureed)
- 1 Egg
- ¼ cup of maple syrup
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup of oat flour (blended old fashioned oats)
- 1/2 cup of all purpose flour
- 1/2 cup oil (vegetable, avocado, canola or olive)
- 1/2 cup of chocolate chips (optional)
- 1/4 cup of crushed walnuts (optional)
Banana Lentil Muffins Directions
- Preheat oven to 300°F (150°C).
- In a bowl, combine all wet ingredients (egg, oil, maple syrup, bananas, lentil purée and vanilla. Mix well.
- In a separate bowl, mix all the dry ingredients together (flour, oat flour, baking soda, baking powder, walnuts and chocolate chips).
- Stir into the egg mixture until mixed.
- Grease the muffin tins with oil.
- Bake for 15-20 minutes.
Check out more healthy kid-friendly recipes.
Have you heard? Anne of Green Gables is back on TV. CBC has created a new series telling the story of our favourite red-headed PEI character. Now you may be thinking, “Um, Kristen, I don’t read your blog for TV updates, I read your blog for child nutrition”. Just stick with me for a minute, because I’m not really going to be talking about Anne of Green Gables. I’m really sharing a tip for supporting your child to become a healthy eater.
So what’s the connection between Anne of Green Gables and nutrition for kids?
My first cookbook, given to me as a child, was the Anne of Green Gables Cookbook. I still have it. So, whenever I think of Anne of Green Gables, I think of cooking. Specifically, I think of my first times in the kitchen as a child. I remember pouring over the pages of this cookbook, carefully choosing the recipes that I would try. Saucy Chicken, Thousand Island Dressing, Diana Barry’s Favourite Raspberry Cordial, Coconut Macaroons, and Anne’s Liniment Cake were all made by a school-age, picky-eater, yours-truly. Not every recipe turned out. But I remember feeling very grown-up indeed as I made them. With the knowledge that I now have as a dietitian and child nutrition expert, I know that I was building self-efficacy, self-esteem, cooking skills, and food-confidence. It’s amazing what one little book did for my future nutritional health.
And so, I want to encourage you to empower your kids with food by cooking with them. Teaching kids how to cook is an important life skill. One really can’t be a healthy eater if one doesn’t cook. And, cooking is learned by doing.
Preparing food can help a picky eater overcome their reluctance to try new foods. Toddlers and preschoolers are at the developmental stage when they want to do things for themselves. Use this to your advantage! I’ve known many a little one who will happily try some salad that they “made”, when they otherwise wouldn’t have touched lettuce with a ten-foot pole.
Get kids in the kitchen young. Get them helping to make a wide variety of foods. Don’t just bake treats with them. Help them to build familiarity, confidence, and positive memories with healthy foods too.
Safety is important in the kitchen. With adult supervision, there are lots of safe things that kids can do. Here’s some ideas:
What Toddlers and Preschoolers Can Do in The Kitchen
- Tearing lettuce
- Tossing a salad
So whether you buy a kids cookbook or invite your child into the kitchen to make family favourite dishes, I encourage you to use this strategy for minimizing picky eating.
Looking for some new recipe ideas? Check out these healthy (and delicious) kid-friendly recipes.
I don’t know about you but I’m tired of this long, extra-snowy winter. I mean snow in Vancouver and Victoria, BC in March?! So I’m choosing to think about spring. Spring is the beginning of the season for many opportunities to give picky eaters ways to explore and be interested in food. Because for many picky eaters, veggies and fruit are less scary when you’ve grown them, picked them, or chosen them from the farmers’ market. So today, I’m sharing with you some spring picky eater success strategies.
While the saying may be, “seeing is believing”. For many a picky eater “seeing is eating”.
Well at least for some. Other picky eaters will happily participate in growing, picking, and shopping but still won’t try them. Which is okay, because all of these activities still contribute to your picky eater building food-confidence, which one-day will turn into eating a wider variety of food.
Picky Eater Key to Success
So go ahead and plan family activities that involve exploring food. The key is that these activities are undertaken in the spirit of fun and exploring – not pressure to eat/try the foods. For example, if you follow up your growing of the radishes with “Try them. These are the radishes that you grew. Come on, you’ll like them.”, you likely will unintentionally undo all the confidence that you built with the activity of growing the radishes. And, next time you ask your little-one to help you in the garden, she/he will refuse because she/he knows that growing leads to pressure to eat.
- Bring your picky eater to the garden centre. Let him/her choose plants and/or seeds. Plant them together in the garden. A pot on a patio is great too.
- Fast-growing veggies like radishes and lettuce are a great match for short attention-spans.
- Do any friends or family members have veggies or fruits that you can offer to pick?
- Plan a family trip to a u-pick farm. Strawberries are great because they grow low to the ground. Check with the u-pick farm whether they allow young children (some do and some don’t).
Choose Them at a Farmers Market:
- Have a game where everyone in the family gets to choose 1 veggie or fruit to buy and try.
- Enjoy the free samples that many stalls offer.
- Encourage your child to talk to the farmer. Their enthusiasm is contagious! Ask how they grow the veggies to engage kids’ innate curiosity. For example, do the veggies grow up high in air on tall plants or secretly hidden under the ground
Looking for more success strategies for your fussy eater? Keep browsing through my blog, I share lots, such as this picky eater success tip.
Sometimes the simplest strategies in life can be the most effective. This certainly is the case with the successful strategy to help picky toddlers and preschoolers try new foods that I’m sharing with you today. So, what is this strategy? It’s: don’t serve the same food two days in a row. Let me explain…
As many parents of toddlers and preschoolers will tell you, 2 – 5 year olds like to eat the same foods every day. The technical term for this is a ‘food jag’. If it was up to them, they’d love to have exactly the same breakfast every day, exactly the same lunch every day, exactly the same snacks every day, and exactly the same dinner every day. We don’t know why this is so. But it is developmentally normal.
I see many well-intentioned parents happily give their kids the foods that they ask for – especially when they are healthy choices. But there are two problems with allowing kids to “choose what’s on the menu”:
- It can lead to unbalanced diets. Kids this age don’t understand that they need to eat a balanced diet. So they can’t take that into account when choosing what they want to eat. They simply want what they want.
- It can contribute to kids getting stuck in picky eating.
At this age when kids happily eat the same foods, we, the responsible adults, need to take the long-view. We need to encourage kids to be open to trying new foods. A way to do this without any battle or force-feeding, is to not give your child the same food at the same meal or snack two days in a row. This doesn’t mean that you need a 14 day, rotating, gourmet menu. It can be as simple as alternating between toast and oatmeal at breakfast. And, it can be as simple as rotating amongst apple slices, strawberries, and an orange at snack time.
If you’re just starting your baby on solid foods, awesome, you’re in the best position! Make this a rule from the very beginning. You’ll help prevent picky eating as your baby grows in to a toddler and preschooler.
What about if you’ve already got a picky toddler or preschooler on your hands who is firmly entrenched in the habit of having the same food every single day?. Here’s what to do (this also works for school-age kids too):
- Step #1: Write out a list of every food that your child will eat. Organize your list by food group.
- Step #2: Pick one meal or snack. Create a plan for next week where, at that particular meal or snack, you rotate amongst the foods your child does like. For example, say your child likes cucumber slices and raw baby carrots. But for packed lunch at daycare you always pack raw baby carrots. This week, for your child’s packed lunch at daycare, you pack raw baby carrots on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. On Tuesday and Thursday, you pack cucumber slices. Do this for 2 – 3 weeks for your child to become accustomed to the change.
- Step #3: Move on to a different meal or snack. Or, move on to another component of your child’s packed lunch. For example, say your child likes both no-nut butter sandwiches and cheese sandwiches. But for packed daycare lunch, you always pack no-nut butter sandwiches. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, pack a no-nut butter sandwich. On Tuesday and Thursday, pack a cheese sandwich. Continue this for 2 – 3 weeks.
- Step #4 and Beyond: Repeat this process until your child is seeing a rotation of different foods for each component of their meals and snacks. At any time after step #3, introduce new foods instead of just rotating amongst their current favourites.
A recent study reinforced something that as a child nutrition dietitian, I’ve known through working with thousands of families over the years in Vancouver, Victoria, and beyond. The study found that giving kids frequent snacks is associated with lower iron levels. In other words, it increases the risk for kids' iron deficiency.
Why are we concerned about kids’ iron levels? Because iron is necessary for having good energy, overall growth, but perhaps most importantly, it’s necessary for little ones’ growing brains. Without adequate iron, kids won’t live up to their full cognitive capacity.
It’s very, very common for parents to give kids frequent snacks. Families record a food diary when I work with them. In reviewing their food diaries, more often than not, we realize that they’re feeding their kids just about every hour. No wonder the far is full of crumbs and you have food stashed in every purse and jacket pocket!
So how does this habit contribute to kids’ lower iron levels? In two ways:
- Snacks usually consist of foods that we deem “snack foods”. They’re things like fruit, granola bars and cookies. These are all low in iron.
- Because kids are in the habit of snacking all day long, they don’t have an appetite to eat at lunch and dinner – the times when iron-rich foods are usually served.
Now this doesn’t mean that kids only need to eat 3 meals a day. They have big energy needs (to keep those busy bodies moving and growing), small tummies, and short attention spans. So it’s unlikely that kids will meet their nutrition needs by eating just 3 meals a day. I recommend that kids be offered opportunities to eat 5-6 times a day. There is no one pattern that families have to follow. But a common pattern that achieves this is:
- Morning snack
- Afternoon snack
- Bedtime snack
To avoid constant snacking, look ahead at your family’s schedule. Plan for when you’ll offer these 5 – 6 opportunities to eat. Plan for the opportunities to eat to be at least 1 hour apart from each other so that your child has a chance to digest what they’ve just eaten and build an appetite again. Aim to have your meals and snacks at about the same times each day.
Previously I’ve written about using share plates as a successful strategy for helping picky eaters to try new foods on their own. Today I’m sharing how to take it up a notch if you’ve been using the share plate strategy already. You can also use what I’m sharing today as your starting point. Either way, I’ve seen this be a successful way to getting picky kids to try new foods.
Almost always, when I visit families for an in-home consultation, I observe that a parent plates the food on each family member’s plate and then brings the plates to the table. I recommend serving meals in a different way. Instead of individually plating food in the kitchen, I recommend serving food on share plates that you place in the middle of the table. This is also called serving food “family style”.
Toddlers and preschoolers, also known as the picky eater or fussy eating years, are at a developmental stage when they want to do things for themselves. It’s what I call the “me do it” stage. They are also at a developmental stage where they are wary of food. Considering these normal stages of child development, you can see why kids this age hate it when their plates arrive in front of them with food already on it. They didn’t get to choose the food themselves and the food is arriving out of nowhere – how suspicious.
Instead of trying to work against kids’ normal developmental stage, the share plate technique uses children’s developmental stage to your advantage. Kids get to closely inspect the food on the share plate and choose, for themselves, what specific pieces end up on their plate. This level of empowerment certainly is worth washing a few extra dishes (especially if you have a dishwasher).
To take this strategy to the next level, I recommend not just having the share plate sitting in the middle of the table. Pass the plate around the table and allow each person to choose what they want from the plate. Yes, smaller children will need help holding and serving themselves from the share plate. But they can still participate. This strategy is particularly helpful for highly picky kids, particularly those who have anxiety about a food even being on their plate. This strategy also is good for kids who completely ignore the food on the share plate when it’s sitting in the middle of the table. This passing of the plate can be a simple, and non-threatening, way for them to interact with each food that you’re serving. You’re also silently expressing to them both how much they are included in the family as well as your faith that one day they’ll choose to eat each food. Talk about empowering messages!
Maybe you’ve heard the statistic. It takes kids between 10 – 30 times of trying a new food before they like it. But did you also know that a study found that parents typically gave up offering a food after 5 times? Yes, they didn’t even make the minimum 10 times and certainly were nowhere near the 30 times.
I use the term “challenging food” to refer to a food that your child has either:
- Never seen before. This includes new recipes/dishes/ preparations of a food they’ve known previously. For example, if your child is familiar with raw and steamed carrots but has never seen roasted carrots before, roasted carrots would be considered a challenging food.
- Seen many (many) times but has never tried.
A mistake that I see parents make all the time is to only offer challenging foods at dinner. Offering challenging foods only at dinner is a mistake for several reasons. First, is the purely practical reason that if you’re working your way up to 10 – 30 presentations of a food and you’re only serving challenging foods at dinner, it’s going to take years before you reach those 30 times. No wonder parents in the research study gave up after 5 times. It seems like you’ve been trying to get your child to eat that food forever.
The second reason is that this contributes to kids’ bad behaviour at dinner. Kids are smart. They figure out pretty quickly that they can get their favourite foods at breakfast, lunch, and snacks. But, that they’ll be presented with scary stuff at dinner. So, they try every trick in their books to get out of eating at dinner. They misbehave. They announce that they aren’t hungry (and then whine about being hungry 20 minutes later). They complain that they’re too tired to eat. In other words, anything that they can brainstorm that will push your buttons and get them out of facing the challenging foods on their plate.
So, what’s the alternative? Use any meal or snack as an opportunity to present a challenging food. Breakfast, lunch, morning snack, afternoon snack, and bedtime snack are all fantastic opportunities to present a challenging food. Mix it up from day-to-day. One day at afternoon snack, serve some of the challenging food leftovers from dinner the night before. The next day, serve a new fruit at breakfast. One day, pack in your child’s lunch a couple of pieces of the raw veggies that you’re packing for your own lunch.
A couple of key tips to making this strategy work:
- Always include familiar foods at the meal or snack. Remember: it’s unlikely that your child will eat the challenging food today. So, be sure that there are familiar foods from the other food groups that they can eat to satisfy their hunger and meet their nutrition needs.
- Provide a small serving of the challenging food. I’m talking one baby carrot in their packed lunch. This limits the amount of food waste when they don’t eat it. And, a small serving is much less intimidating than a large serving. When your child does try, and like, the challenging food, as they say in showbiz, always leave them wanting something more. In other words, when your child does eat the challenging food, you can repeat that food soon and provide a larger serving.
While presenting a workshop on Monday, a small group of parents pulled me aside and asked a question that I get asked all the time. “What do you think about sneaking in vegetables? Is hiding veggies okay?” You know what these parents mean. There are several very popular cookbooks, one by a celebrity, made up entirely of recipes that involve pureeing vegetables and hiding them in other foods. Classic examples are squash in mac and cheese and beets in chocolate cake.
Most parents who ask me this question do so with a sheepish look in their faces. They’re expecting me to tell them that it’s a horrible idea. However, my answer isn’t a simple – “good” or “bad”. Here’s the details.
Studies show that kids do eat more servings of vegetables in families where they add pureed vegetables to dishes. Also, most of us could use to eat more veggies. So exploring new dishes that include veggies is a fantastic idea. Go ahead, incorporate more vegetables into your eating habits!
However, if you are going to use this technique, there are two very important steps to take to make sure that you are both helping your child eat more veggies now AND helping teach them to choose to eat vegetables as a life-long habit. (And, not inadvertently creating an even more picky eater).
Hiding Veggies Important Step #1:
If all you’re serving your child is mac and cheese and chocolate cake, all they’re learning is to eat mac and cheese and chocolate cake. You may know that there’s squash in the mac and cheese and beets in the cake, but your child doesn’t. If you choose to sneak in veggies, also be sure to serve obvious veggies too. For example, serve steamed broccoli on the side of that mac and cheese. Even if your child doesn’t eat the obvious veggies, you’re role modeling choosing to eat vegetables – an important lesson for life-long healthy eating habits.
Hiding Veggies Important Step #2:
Don’t deny that there are veggies in a dish if your child asks. One book I read recommended waking up in the middle of the night to prepare your purees and freeze them so that you can sneak them into dishes without your kids seeing you. Um, no. Not what I recommend. First, I want you to get the few hours of precious sleep that you can get. Second, picky kids are smart and pay close attention to detail. They’re also little conspiracy theorists about food. They will figure out that you’ve been hiding veggies in your dishes. Then, they’ll wonder what else you’ve been hiding and will become even more suspicious of their food. Not the path you want to head down. Don’t deny what you’ve put in a dish. At the same time, you aren’t a waiter at a two Michelin star restaurant. You don’t need to describe every ingredient and every step that you took to prepare each dish. In other words, you don’t need to divulge what’s in a dish, but don’t deny what’s in it either. If your child asks, answer them directly in a neutral, matter of fact tone.
You’ll not likely be surprised to hear that one of the things I love to do while travelling is to observe and experience different people’s cultural food ways. I was travelling alone for two of my four weeks in Spain last month so I had lots of time to observe how people ate.
One thing that really struck me is how people chose their food at a buffet. In one of my hotels, a breakfast buffet was included. There was an optional dinner buffet too. I noticed that the Spanish families ate very differently at buffets than we do here in North America.
You know the routine here in North America. Every family member goes up to the buffet and chooses how much of which foods they’ll put on their plates. Kids who are too young to serve themselves either stay at the table and they receive a plate made up for them by a parent. Or, the little ones come up to the buffet and “help” choose what foods go on their individual plate. Then every family member sits down with their individual plates and people eat.
This is completely different than how the Spanish do buffets. What I observed is that some family members stayed sitting at the table and some went up to the buffet. Everyone placed an empty plate in front of themselves at the table. The family members up at the buffet would select a plate full of foods from the buffet that they would place in the middle of the table. For example in the middle of the table at dinner there were plates full of meat, plates full of fish, plates full of vegetables, a plate full of bread, and a plate full of olives. One food per plate. Then, everyone served themselves from these plates. In this way, even at a buffet, everyone shared the same meal. Yes, even if there were toddlers, preschoolers or older kids amongst the family members.
Why am I telling you this? I can’t help but draw parallels between what I observed at the buffet table and how people responded to me when I described what I did for a living. The Spanish folks whom I talked to were completely confused when I said that I helped families with picky eaters. It wasn’t a language barrier- these folks’ English skills were very good and we experienced no problems communicating ideas until this point. People were understanding me when I said that I was a dietitian (although sometimes I needed to use the term “nutritionist”). But they didn’t understand the concept that some kids don’t eat well. They didn’t understand that kids refuse to eat a variety of foods. They didn’t understand that this situation is stressful for parents and creates an unhealthy relationship with food for the kids that can last a lifetime. And, that I can help sort out the situation so that kids choose to try new foods on their own, meet their nutrition needs, and develop lifelong healthy eating habits. Nope, my Spanish conversation partners were completely baffled by me.
You see, these Spanish folks were already doing many of the techniques that I teach parents. I teach making one meal for the whole family. I teach serving food from shared plates. I teach allowing kids to choose from the foods that you provide, without parents getting involved in demanding two more bites of one food in order to earn seconds of another food. I teach planning a meal so that there’s at least one familiar food that each person in the household enjoys. And, most importantly, I teach having pleasant conversations at the table. Each and every one of these techniques I saw in operation at the buffet restaurant. And guess what. The kids stayed at the table during the entire meal. The kids knew how to take turns in a conversation. The kids ate well. The parents didn’t need to scold their kids or cajole them to eat their peas. There were no mealtime meltdowns.
I suspect that the Spanish traditional way of eating was preventing the ubiquitous picky eating that causes us so much trouble here. That picky eating was such a rare concept in Spain that people just hadn’t heard of it. I’m sharing my observations with you today in the hopes to inspire you to eat more like the Spanish – and I’m not referring to the Iberico ham, paella and olives!
When kids enjoy being at the family table, they’ll eat better. Period. This is a strategy for dealing with kids who are picky eaters (fussy eaters) that is amazingly powerful, yet seldom used. When the families whom I work with adopt this tip they love it. It immediately makes meal times way less stressful (for everyone). Everyone is freed up to enjoy the meal.
This strategy has the power to create the family meals for that you wish for. Yet, if you’re like most of the parents I meet, you feel that you need to be doing more to be good a good Mom or Dad. You’re under the impression that to do a good job of parenting your child around food, you need to cajole them into eating their veggies. To refuse allowing seconds of rice/noodles unless they take 2 more bites of their meat.
If this rings true for you, I have big news. You don’t have to be the food police. Your job is to plan, prepare, and provide meals and snacks. And, to join your child at the table to lead the way in creating a positive environment.
How to do this? Be good company. Have pleasant conversations. Yes, that includes having pleasant conversations with your partner too – your child doesn’t have to be the centre of your attention for every second of the meal.
What to talk about? Choose any topic except the food you’re eating. One of my favourites is to play good thing, bad thing. This game is also known by many other names. What it involves is everyone at the table taking turns telling about the best and worst things about their day. Even preschoolers love playing this game. And you’ll connect as a family.
No, this doesn’t mean that magically you’ll no longer be concerned about your child’s nutrition. It seems paradoxical, but the more you back off telling your children how many bites they need to eat, the better they’ll eat. Kids respond positively to you removing the pressure. Hunger motivates kids to eat. You don’t need to. When you follow this “be good company” strategy, it’s a weight off your shoulders and it’s empowering for your children.
When kids enjoy being at the family table, they’ll eat better. Period.
Does this sound familiar?
“My kid used to eat just about everything and anything but she stopped eating meat all of a sudden. She's now 2.”
This, hands-down, is the single most common question that parents come to me wondering. Well, it’s not always meat that their children suddenly won’t eat. It may be vegetables, fruit, or most foods (i.e. they’ll only eat something like 5 foods).
If you’ve recently experienced this, the good news is that you’re not alone!
Most (but not all) kids will happily eat almost everything when you’re first introducing solid foods. From about 6 months onwards, these happy babies keenly gobble up most foods you put in front of them. In fact, they’re delighted with all the different textures, shapes, and tastes that you introduce to them.
Then, all of a sudden, something changes. This change can happen as young as 9 months, and most commonly happens somewhere between 18 months – 2 years.
Welcome to the picky eating stage.
It’s a completely normal developmental stage that most kids go through.
No, you didn’t cause your great little eater to suddenly “hate” foods that she loved previously. If you’re like most of the parents I’ve worked with, I know that I need to tell you to turn down the volume of the Mommy-guilt (or Daddy-guilt) voice in your head that’s telling you that it’s all your fault, that you did something wrong to cause this. That you “broke” your child. Let me tell you definitively: you didn’t.
The science doesn’t tell us why kids all of a sudden become picky. Some scientists have theorized that it’s a protective thing. From back when we lived in caves. At this age infants become toddlers and start wandering away from parents. It would be evolutionarily protective to have kids become scared to put random (i.e. potentially poisonous) plants in their mouths. It’s an interesting theory but who knows if this is true.
What I do know is that picky eating is a developmental stage. Kids become wary of foods. They honestly become scared to try things (yes, even if they’ve eaten them before). They don’t have the language skills to tell you that they’re feeling trepidatious about trying that food. So they simply say “I hate it!” (before they’ve even tried it.
The good news is that you don’t just have to wait until your daughter or son grows out of this stage. You can support them to be confident enough to try new foods, to increase the range of foods that they’ll eat, and to get the good nutrition that they need.
The bad news is that I can’t solve your question in 1 short and snappy blog post. I can, however, point you in the right direction.
As first steps, I encourage you to:
- Continue serving your child small servings of every food that you eat in your household.
- Role model eating these foods by joining your child at as many meals and snacks as possible.
- Plan meals and snacks that include both familiar and challenging foods.
And of course, keep your eyes on your peeled for other strategies I'll share to help your picky eater transition smoothly through this difficult phase (while ensuring that they’re meeting their nutrition needs).