Young children can have minds of their own, so what do you do if your toddler, who used to be willing to eat anything, suddenly decides he is only going to eat hot dogs and macaroni and cheese?
Experts say there is no need to panic—with time and patience, your finicky kid will be back on track and eating his Brussels sprouts in no time.
Children tend to become picky eaters at an early age, sometimes between the ages of 18 months and two years, when they start to want more independence, said Kelly Devine Rickert, a registered dietician and health coach for Franciscan Wellcare. The pickiness can sometimes last until they are five or six, she said.
“There can be some reasons a child becomes a picky eater, such as testing out their independence, power struggles with the caregiver, a genuine distaste for a food, and food aversions,” she said.
She said it is important to just keep exposing a child to a food. Sometimes, she said, it can take up to 20 introductions before a child is willing to try a new food.
“Sometimes, parents can get in the bad habit of only feeding children ‘kid foods’ like hot dogs, fries, etc. so that when they see a fruit or vegetable or unfamiliar food again, they do not want to eat it. The more variety a child has, the more likely they are to eat different foods,” Rickert said.
Violet Tauber, a speech language pathologist for the birth to age 3 population and the mother of three children herself, said it is important to continue to try new foods with your children, no matter what.
“No matter what we’re having, everyone has the exact same thing on their plates,” she said. “They have to eat it or taste it. If you’re two, you have to have two green beans. If you’re four, you have to have four.”
It’s important for parents to model good behavior, Tauber said, because children are always watching what their parents do.
“If they see Dad is only eating pizza, that is all they will want, too,” she said. “As the Mom, you’re not a short-order cook. Everyone eats the same thing, and if you don’t eat dinner, then you wait until breakfast. You don’t make macaroni for one and hot dogs for another.”
Tauber said having children help in the kitchen is important, as well. Little ones can help stir, and older ones can break eggs, peel potatoes and chop vegetables, she said.
Although most children out grow their picky ways, severe picky eaters might need the help of a registered dietician, pediatrician or a speech therapist.
Tauber said she once worked with a young boy who liked peanut butter, but not apples. So she started by adding tiny fragments of apple into a bite of peanut butter. He protested at first, but soon could eat a pea-sized piece of apple.
“It’s okay to be a manipulator when they are trying new foods,” she said. “Start with a tiny sliver of something, and work up to something bigger. Expose them to foods they don’t like in a playful manner.”
Rickert said it is important to not argue with your children about food, because that is a “lose-lose” situation.
“Everyone gets frustrated and upset, which will not help your child to eat more,” she said. “I highly recommend talking to your child’s pediatrician if there are any concerns about your child’s eating.”