Ask the Expert – Turn Picky Eating into Long Term Healthy Eating

Ask The Expert is a weekly column on Littlestomaks.com. The idea is to have a reader-submitted question answered by a nutrition expert or a pediatrician. Feel free to submit your question in the comments section below.

Kids love Mac’ n Cheese! Sometimes, so much that they don’t want to eat anything else! This is challenging for toddler parents who try hard to provide a healthy, balanced nutrition. This week, registered dietitian  Lindsey Walder tackles this issue and advises parents to shift their focus from nutrient intake to establishing and maintaining a healthy eating environment.

Lindsey Walder, MS RD LD
  • M.S. Public Health Nutrition from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
  • B.S. Nutrition/Dietetics from South Dakota State University
  • Certificate in Adult Weight Management
  • County public health nutrition programs, University of MN-Twin Cities nutrition research, statewide grant-funded nutrition initiative, private practice
  • Expert in Weight loss, child nutrition, heart healthy cooking and wellness
  • Website: Live Better Nutrition
  • Twitter: @LivBtrNutrition
  • Contact: yourRD@livebetternutrition.com
  • Question: My child eats only cereal and mac & cheese. How can I improve his nutrition?

    Young children commonly go through phases during which a few foods are accepted and everything else refused.  One reason these food jags occur is that young eaters are neophobic—in other words, they fear new foods and tastes.  Interestingly, toddlers’ taste buds become much more perceptive around the time they start walking, making them increasingly selective about what they eat.  Researchers believe that the sudden change around age two from eating a wide variety of foods to eating a limited number actually may have a genetic link that could have served to protect our prehistoric baby ancestors as they first toddled out of the cave.  What exacerbates children’s innate reluctance to try new foods at this age is the pure delight most toddlers take in attempting to, for the first time, exert control over some aspect of their lives.

    While having a picky eater is extremely frustrating for parents, the good news is that nutritional deficiencies in the United States are rare.  If your children are growing normally according to your pediatrician, rest assured that they are more than likely adequately well-nourished.  So, take a deep breath and present your child with broccoli for the tenth time.  Even if you are turned away – again – take comfort in knowing that this stage usually only lasts until age four or five.  That said, the malleable years of early childhood are still crucial for establishing good eating habits, and parents should make the most of it.  It’s not as difficult as you may think.

    First, to avoid driving yourself crazy worrying if your toddler is getting the right nutrition while also trying to accommodate his seemingly undying yearnings for macaroni and cheese, I recommend shifting your focus from nutrient intake to establishing and maintaining a healthy eating environment.  Doing so will lay the foundation for an appreciation of a wide variety of healthy foods.   In my practice, parents who fret and stress about their child’s eating (or lack thereof) during meal time are the ones who usually face the most resistance from their child.  In addition to not worrying so much, there are five simple things parents can do now to foster good eating habits and encourage venturing beyond mac & cheese.

    Expose your toddler repeatedly to new foods

    Offering the same new food every day for 5-14 days can be effective.  Including these unfamiliar or previously-rejected items at meal times without forcing your child to eat them helps him to become more comfortable with the food item and may increase his willingness to try it.  Remember, meals should be eaten together as a family (without any short-order cooking), so your child can see you enjoying a wide variety of foods.

    Give 2-3 choices of healthy foods

    One mother told me she successfully employs this tactic with her four-year old: for snacks, she asks her son if he would like an apple or a banana.  This is a win-win approach to avoid a power-struggle since both parent and child are part of the decision.

    Avoid forging a connection between eating and good or bad behavior

    Too often we use food to assist with parenting responsibilities—down the road this practice can lead to an unhealthy food relationship.  Consequently, do not bribe your child with food.  Instead of offering food for rewards or comfort, give your child stickers or a hug.  And, try not to put any food or food group on a pedestal; simply teach your child that some foods are healthier than others.

    Keep the highly-processed, sodium and sugar-heavy, refined foods like packaged frozen meals, chips, high-fat meats, cookies, cakes, and sugary drinks out of the house

    Your three-year old can’t take the car and go pick up a box of sugary cereal at the grocery store.  Take advantage of the fact that you are the food gatekeeper and have control over what foods get offered.  Go ahead–cross the hot dogs off your shopping list!

    And finally, stock your kitchen with healthy, delicious foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, fish, lean protein, and reduced-fat dairy products

    Not immediately, but over time, your youngsters will learn to prefer healthy types of foods if that is what they’re accustomed to.

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    Disclaimer – Information provided in Ask The Expert column on Littlestomaks.com is intended to give you general guidance on a question related to toddler nutrition. It is not meant to be treated as medical advice. You are welcome to contact this expert for a detailed consultation on your specific situation to determine what actions, if any, you should take regarding nutrition and health of your toddlers. We do not recommend you to take any action based solely on the information presented in this column. Experts have agreed to provide their professional opinion on toddler nutrition related questions on a voluntary basis and no compensation is offered to them by Littlestomaks.com.