Editor’s note: CNN’s Chloe Melas will discuss how parents can deal with picky eaters at 7:45 a.m. ET Saturday on HLN’s “Weekend Express With Susan Hendricks.”
“Who wants spaghetti? I call my children by looking in our pantry.
“Me!” shout my two sons, aged 2 and 4, in unison.
I bring the water to a boil, I mix the pasta but absolutely no sauce because my children prefer it with butter.
I ask the boys what color they want the dinner plates. Without fail, my 4-year-old yells, “I want green!” as my 2-year-old throws her hands at each other excitedly, “Blue, blue, mom!”
I toss the plates in front of them with sliced strawberries and diluted apple juice in their cups, and pour myself a glass of wine.
I feel accomplished, but 15 minutes later that feeling dissipates. My kids didn’t touch anything on their plates other than a few berries.
“Not like!” my youngest pouts. Without looking up, the 4-year-old said, “I want a Popsicle.”
Here we go again, I tell myself. The next 30 minutes is all about bribing them to eat a few more bites in exchange for something sweet.
I find myself feeding my homemade meals to our dog, Franky. He is the best fed member of our house.
Turns out my dinner drama is far from unique. Picky eating is common in young children. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, up to 50% refuse to eat vegetables or try new foods.
Making a meal for my kids is half the battle whether they eat it or not, psychologist Alli Delozier told me in a recent interview.
“Eliminate the pressure to eat at the table,” Delozier said. “By just putting the food on their plates or on the table, you’re doing a great job as a parent because you’re still exposing them to that food. They see them, they smell them, they can touch them, they can taste them. And each time they’re exposed, they’re one step closer to learning to like that food.
Several parents in my circle of friends told me to check out an Instagram account called “Kids Eat in Color”. Jennifer Anderson, a registered dietitian, created the page, amassing more than a million subscribers looking for what she says is “evidence-based information and strategies for children’s food and nutrition” .
“This is the age where the greatest power (of your kids) is to say no and have opinions,” Anderson said. “And so, it’s totally expected. You’re not doing anything wrong.
As for my anxiety when my kids don’t eat their food? Anderson said that was normal too.
“What happens though is when kids say, no, a lot of times, as parents, we’re really worried, like, ‘Oh my God, they’re not going to eat. They’re not going to grow. They’re going to being sick. … And so because of that fear, we do a whole bunch of things,” Anderson told me.
“We put a screen in front of them so that they eat better. We do with them what they want. We’re kind of saying, ‘OK, you can eat all day. I will follow you everywhere with this spoon,” she added. “We’ve all done it, like running after the toddler, ‘Take a bite.’ We start saying things like “Take a bite or I’ll take the iPad away from you. Take three bites before you can get off. And then we start demanding those things from a toddler whose greatest power is to say “Are you telling me to do this? Not at all.” And so, we kind of fall into these habits that really work against us in the long run.
According to both experts, yes – give your children what they want to eat.
“We always want to serve a food that a child feels comfortable with,” Anderson said. “If you know they generally like mac and cheese, or they generally like peanut butter and jelly, or they like apples and strawberries, we always want to have something they generally like. at the table, but we must also respect their nature of bodily autonomy.
“They don’t have to eat it… if they don’t want to eat it, and we respect that. We actually lay the groundwork very early on for them to decide that they can choose what happens to their body, and that has a huge effect on so many things.
And make it fun! Your child’s plate should be colored.
“Each different color is caused by chemicals in food that do specific things in our bodies,” Anderson said. “When we think, ‘Hey, I’m serving a wide range of colors to my child,’ I know they’re getting nutrients without obsessing over specific things. Did they get enough vitamin C? Calcium? Did they get enough vitamin C? Calcium? Consumed enough magnesium?So if they eat color when they are children, or at least if they are exposed to it, they are more likely to eat a more varied diet later on.
What about introducing new foods? Yes, that’s a good idea, the experts said. You should always expose your children to new foods by putting a few other options on the table.
“Do you have to put everything on your plate? No,” Anderson said. “If you have a kid who’s like, ‘I don’t like peas.’ I like to put what I call a micro portion on their plate. It would be like a pea. It’s not scary, but they still get that exposure.
“And say something like, ‘These are the foods available for the meal. You can choose what to eat from what is here. ”
And the sweets? Delozier said the treats are fine but not to tie them as a reward.
“It’s so easy to say, ‘Well, if you finish your green beans, you can have a Popsicle.’ We’ve all fallen into this trap, but just letting them have the thing and not putting it on a pedestal and making it a food reward can be helpful, and then you decide how often it’s right for your family, which Whether it’s having dessert every night, having Popsicles after school, or having them once a week, it’s really up to you.
- Don’t do anything else.
- Don’t take it personally.
- Let them fill in other parts of the meal.
- Don’t party when they finish their plate.
- Serve food formally and consistently. Sit down at meal and snack times.
I tend to let my kids play with toys or watch their iPads during mealtimes, but both experts told me I should stop.
“We really try to make it a quiet food environment where they can focus on food and connecting with family members,” Delozier said. “We don’t want screens at the table. We don’t want to have toys and things like that. And that’s something that can take a while to go away.
But there are situations in which it is not just about eating with difficulty. When should you see a healthcare professional?
“When you have a child who is off their growth chart, who their pediatrician is concerned about, and who is not gaining weight, especially if they are losing weight, those are definitely cause for concern,” Delozier said.
Over the past week I’ve quit the kickbacks and tried the micro portions. I have noticed a gradual increase in the amount of food my children eat. In the end, what I learned is that there is no linear path to mealtimes.
“As a psychologist and as a mother, I can say that a lot of our beliefs about what children should eat and how we should feed our children are informed by our own beliefs about food and how we we feed,” Delozier said. “Take food off a pedestal (and) make it more neutral. (So your kids are) more likely to be able to tune into their hunger cues and eat based on hunger and make choices that match your family values.