Picky Eating with Dr. Natasha

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Well, we blinked and we are already approaching the end of 2021! Time is flying.  For those of you preparing school lunches you may be reaching the end of your creativity, especially if you are experiencing picky eating habits at home as well.  Whether you kiddos are 2 or 12 mealtime battles are no fun for anyone.  Here are some tips and facts to hopefully help you take a deep breath!
Many toddlers start to develop picky eating habits around 2 years of age- some before, some after, and some (magically!) never do.  As a mom myself, and after seeing many kids in practice I don’t think there is a magic formula for avoiding picky eating.  Some kids just are picky no matter what you do, and others somehow continue to down kale and kombucha on the regular!  But there is some science behind this frustrating phenomenon that I find fascinating.
Biologically there is some sense to a bit of weariness kicking in for toddlers around age 2, as that is around the age many cultures wean, and little ones start to have more freedom to run around.  The potential of coming across something they could eat that could harm them increases.  Additionally, some people are genetically more likely to taste bitter foods more strongly, and these differences start to really stand out in the toddler years.  Children also have shorter digestive tracts and relatively smaller stomachs so they are more drawn to calorically dense foods (ie starches). As many of us parents know, toddlers start to practice their independence too, and while they don’t really have control over much in their life they can control what goes in their mouth! So mealtimes can easily become a power struggle in which everyone loses. As time goes on, many kids do come out of their picky phase, and even more do as they approach adulthood.  I always remind parents (and myself!) that your kids are likely to end up eating how they see you eat, so remember to set a good example!
What else can we do though? There are a LOT of meals after two years old and I know how frustrating it can be to feed little ones who turn their nose in disgust to a meal they happily ate the day before.  Here are some of my favorite tips!
  • Remove the power struggle! This is one of the best things parents can do.  I like the division of responsibility of feeding which establishes that the parents get to decide what food and when (e.g. what is served at meal times and when meals are) and then the kids get to decide if they eat any and how much.  This means no coercing, bribing, cajoling or tricking them into eating.  Easier said than done, I know!
  • Always serve the kids at least one thing with their meal they know they (usually) like- such as a fruit, rice, pasta, or cheese.  Pairing new or unfamiliar foods with favorite foods is also a great idea as the comfort that the familiar food provides can lend confidence to trying something new.
  • It sounds cliché but kids really do need LOTS of exposure to new foods.  Keep trying! Even if they don’t touch it the first 15 or 20 times they see it they may one day start eating it claiming it has always been their favorite.
  • As hard as it can be for parents who like to cook (like me!) keeping kid’s meals simple often has the best results.  If you are doing a fun sauce you can give them a “dipping” cup which can be a big hit, but also just know it may go completely untouched.
  • Include your kids in meal planning, shopping, and execution! I know this sounds like more work (who wants to take their kids to the grocery store??) But including them in the process really can make them more excited about eating new foods.  Consider growing some of your own veggies!  Nothing tastes better than a home grown carrot or tomato.  Or take them to a Farmer’s Market.  Pick out new recipes together and talk about eating the colors of the rainbow.
  • Despite what you may have read there really isn’t a significant difference between picky eating between babies who are given purees and babies who are given baby led weaning foods.  The biggest thing a parent can do (because there is truly so much we can’t control) is to be consistent.  There will be so many days they don’t eat what you serve them- keep your head up! It’s not you, I promise!
  • Limit snacking- everyone loves snack foods! They are crunchy, sweet, and salty and we live in a mega snack culture.  As soon as my kids get to any activity they ask for a snack- what?? I didn’t bring you to the park for a snack! It is normal for kids to need a snack between meals but make it a set thing- sit down, have a snack (ideally with a good balance of carbs, fat, and protein) and then carry on.  If they are snacking right up until meal time they will be far less likely to sit down and eat.
Hopefully these tips are helpful.  Remember, you are doing a great job! Feeding picky people isn’t for the faint of heart!  Keep up the good work!