by Lisa Milbrand

When it comes to picky eaters, the truth may not be that hard to swallow

We’ve all heard the stories—the child who completely shuns vegetables or refuses to consume anything but white foods. They’re funny if you aren’t the parent trying to get healthy food into a picky eater. If the kid is yours, however, it’s no joke. There are reasons for your child’s peculiar eating habits, and things you can do to broaden his or her culinary horizons. First off, you may be surprised to learn that it’s hardly ever a matter of taste. Picky eating is a natural part of toddlerhood, as children express their independence. What parents may believe is a fussy eater may not actually be that at all. “Children don’t tend to eat as much at meals as adults expect them to eat, and babies spit out their food, leading parents to believe that they don’t like it,” says Dr. Maria Padron, a pediatric and adolescent psychiatrist at Trinitas Regional Medical Center. “But babies taste food by spitting it out and licking it, and if parents believe their child doesn’t like it and don’t continue to introduce that food, it becomes a foreign food to them.” Well-meaning parents may try to cater to a picky eater, but experts say that that only backfires. “They create a monster,” Dr. Padron explains. “Unless there’s a medical contraindication, children should be ‘helped’ to eat everything that the family eats.” Easier said than done, right? Don’t give up until you’ve exhausted these strategies: Offer variety earlier. “Kids often become picky eaters because they haven’t been exposed to a lot of foods,” Dr. Padron says. “You should slowly expose children to different kinds of foods.” Hold your ground. Your child may decide to go on a hunger strike for a meal or two if you suddenly stop being a short order cook and insist that he eats what you’re eating, but he won’t hold out forever. “Kids may refuse to eat for a few meals, but as long as they’re healthy and still drinking liquids, it’s fine,” Dr. Padron says. “When he’s hungry, your child will eat.” Keep reintroducing the same food. “Parents need to be patient when they’re introducing new foods, and not get upset if kids aren’t jumping to eat broccoli right away,” Dr. Padron advises. Even if your children didn’t like asparagus the first few times, all it may take is the repetition (or a new way of serving it) to make them like it the 10th time around. You just need to insist on one bite each time you serve it— if they still don’t like it, don’t force it. Get your kids involved. Take your kids along to the grocery store and let them choose something new to try in the produce department—and if you have the time, let them get involved in preparing the dinner, too. By allowing your child to have a say in what they’re eating and an investment in the meal, you may find that they’re more willing to eat the fruit they picked out or the side dish they helped make. Minimize distractions at dinnertime. If there are other forms of entertainment beyond eating—a TV, books or toys—that can keep kids from attending to the task at hand. Instead, look for ways to make the meal itself more entertaining, with a colorful variety of vegetables or interesting presentations. Seek help. Get your pediatrician on board, especially if it’s been a long-standing issue, where your child’s eating habits may have become ingrained. For more severe cases, your pediatrician may recommend speaking to an expert, such as a counselor or a speech or occupational therapist. Indeed, in some instances, picky eating can be the sign of a more serious issue—a sensory disorder or a mechanical issue with feeding. So when is the right time to call in professional help? “In children with feeding issues, it could be a textural or tactile issue, often with mushy foods like bananas or yogurt,” says Kevin Nelson, occupational therapist and Manager of Trinitas Children’s Therapy Services. “Or it can be a mechanical issue, where they simply don’t have the musculature in their mouth to handle that food.” Whatever the cause of a child’s pickiness, in the end the key is to work slowly. Your kid won’t become an adventurous eater overnight, and if the issues are more sensory or mechanical in nature, you may need to follow a much gentler, slower path toward introducing these foods.

“Seeing a therapist is not the first step in a long and expensive process.”

“We slowly try to introduce the textures to them,” Nelson explains. “If they have an issue with mushy textures, we might start to do some play with finger paint or shaving cream to get them comfortable with that texture. Then we’ll have them sit at a table with the yogurt on the table, then put a dab on their finger, maybe have them smell it. Finally, we’ll put a dab on their tongue. We slowly try to get it closer to get them to tolerate it.” Depending on the severity of the issues, this process could take months. However, if you consistently work with children at home as well as in therapy, you may find that you’ll move faster toward turning your child into a well-rounded eater. Also, understand that seeing a therapist is not the first step in a long and expensive process. On the contrary, says Nelson. “You may need to see a therapist for an initial consultation, just to get started in the right direction and get trained on how to handle it.” “A lot of our job is educating parents on what’s appropriate,” he says, “and how to deal with different situations.” EDGE

 Editor’s Note: Lisa Milbrand is a New Jersey-based writer whose articles on health and relationships appear in Parents, Arthritis Today and Modern Bride. Her blog celebrates the life of a working mother.