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If you're the parent of a fussy eater, you've probably done just about everything to get your child to eat nutritious foods. But your encouraging tactics for healthy eating could be backfiring. Nutritionist and TODAY contributor Joy Bauer offers solutions to pacify the picky eater.
Don’t: Encourage kids to clean their platesEarly studies suggested that children under the age of 5 are more sensitive to satiety signals than their older peers, meaning they are more likely to stop eating when full, regardless of external cues such as portion size. When preschoolers were fed bowls of macaroni and cheese that varied in portion size, they consistently ate the same amount of food, regardless of whether they were given a small or large portion. Not so with the older kids; they ate 50 percent more mac and cheese when served the large portion.
Interestingly, more recent studies have shown that all children, regardless of age, eat more when served larger portions. In other words, parents may not be able to rely on their kids to stop eating when they’ve had an age-appropriate amount of food.
At home, the best approach is to offer your kids small portions of everything on the table (except vegetables — those are unlimited, of course). Encourage them to eat until they are comfortably full, and allow them additional servings if they request them.
Most importantly, never force your kids to clean their plate or scold them for wasting food. Teaching your kids to be “in tune” with their own hunger and fullness cues will allow them to have a comfortable relationship with food and avoid overeating as they grow older.
Don’t: Offer sweet rewards Trying to get children to “eat their vegetables” can be hugely frustrating. Parents often resort to the seemingly tried-and-true method of bribery — “Eat your broccoli and you can have ice cream for dessert.” Unfortunately, this technique can backfire by teaching kids that broccoli and other vegetables are “bad” or unlikable because their consumption requires a reward. At the same time, this approach positions dessert as the prize, something to be valued over other foods. Multiple studies have shown that, in the long run, preference for foods decreases when kids are given rewards for eating them.
Avoid getting into the habit of rewarding your kids for eating certain foods. Instead, encourage them to try at least one small bite of the foods they dislike each time they are offered. Over time, as the food becomes more familiar to them, their distaste may wear off. Most importantly, model good eating behaviors yourself. Pile plenty of vegetables onto your own plate, and let your kids know how much you enjoy them.
Don’t: Deprive kids of all sweets Studies out of Penn State University have found that when kids are restricted from eating cookies or other snack foods, their desire to eat the snacks increases, as does their consumption of these foods when they are finally given access to restricted items. In the real world, this suggests that completely outlawing certain junk foods can backfire when kids do have access to these foods and parents are not in control, like at birthday parties or a friend’s house.
A solid strategy is to limit, but not completely eliminate, access to unhealthy sweets and snacks in the home and on the road.
In fact, it’s OK to allow school-age kids a fun food snack with their school lunch and some type of dessert after dinner. The key is to control what you can … and to let them have reasonable dessert independence when you’re out and about.
So that means at home, control the following:
- Limit lunchbox snacks and after-dinner desserts to 150 calories (2 cookies, an ice-cream pop, 100-calorie snack packs).
- Read labels and choose healthy ingredients. Try your best to avoid artificial ingredients, trans fat and snacks high in saturated fat.
- If you can sneak in a little nutrition along with the sugar, it’s a bonus. For example, low-fat puddings and ice cream provide calcium; strawberries with whipped cream provide fiber and vitamin C.
- Use a 90/10 food strategy — 90 percent healthy foods and 10 percent fun foods. Teach your kids to go out of their way to fuel their bodies with healthy food 90 percent of the time, and eat small portions of the not-so-healthy treats the other 10 percent of the time. Nothing is off-limits. This method is much healthier in the long run than making ALL treats taboo.
Bottom line: Control what you can, and allow your kids some freedom of choice — within reason — when you can’t.
Don’t: Let the little kids eat like the big kids
A 2005 study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that kids with older siblings are more likely to eat a diet high in junk foods like soda, potato chips, cookies, cake and candy than children without older siblings. Because their older siblings request and have access to these treats, young kids tend to be exposed to unhealthy foods much earlier than parents’ firstborn.
Do your best to maintain the same age-based standards for food choices for all of your kids; maintain the same eating patterns for your 3-year-old that you followed when your now 8-year-old was that age. Allow your older kids to have snacks that aren’t appropriate for toddlers or preschoolers, but try to time them for periods when your youngest ones aren’t around. Put the treats in lunch boxes to take to school, or let your oldest enjoy them when your youngest are in another room, when they’re taking their evening bath, or after they go to bed at night. It’s probably best to keep some foods, like soda, out of the house altogether, and not let anyone have them at home, young or old.
Don’t: Offer too many snacks
Constant snacking throughout the day can leave kids uninterested in mealtime when lunch or dinner rolls around. Your kids may also be less willing to try new foods at dinner, like the ever-problematic vegetables, if they’re not particularly hungry.
Try to stick to a consistent meal and snack schedule, and allow at least two hours between your children’s mid-afternoon or after-school snack and dinner. Allow no more than two to three snacks a day, and limit them to about 150 calories apiece. This way, your kids will be more likely to fill up and try new foods at lunch and dinner, when more nutritious foods are typically offered.
Don’t: Get young kids started on liquid caloriesAn eye-opening 2008 study in the journal Pediatrics found that today’s youths take in 10 to 15 percent of their total daily calories from sugar-sweetened beverages (like soda, sports drinks and fruit drinks) and 100 percent fruit juice. Further, kids’ average daily caloric intake from these beverages increased from 242 calories to 270 calories over the last 10 years and continues to rise. Most of these drinks are sources of empty calories, meaning they provide simple sugars but little else in the way of nutrients. What’s more, although highly calorie-dense, beverages do not trigger the same satiety mechanisms as solid foods. This means that your kids are unlikely to feel full from drinking lots of soda or juice, and therefore will not innately compensate for the extra liquid calories they slurp up, which can result in weight gain in the long term.
Your best bet is to limit the beverage choices offered in your home to water (including seltzer and sparkling water), nonfat or 1 percent milk (after age 2), and diluted 100 percent fruit juice on occasion. Don’t start introducing young kids to sugary, calorific flavored waters, juice drinks or soda at a young age. Set a good example, and don’t drink them yourself!
Don’t: Serve the same meals you did before having kidsYour ideal vision of healthy, satisfying meals might include plain grilled chicken, fish, salads and plenty of steamed veggies, but chances are, young kids will find these foods bland, unappealing or downright disgusting.
If you want to convince your picky kids to try healthier foods, you’re going to have to be a bit more creative in the kitchen. Try jazzing up meals with fun, flavorful marinades and condiments to make bland food more appealing and tasty, or play around with shapes, colors and textures to liven up your dinner plates. Try some of these ideas on your brood:
- Marinate lean proteins (sirloin steak, skinless poultry, etc.) in reduced-fat Italian dressing, lemon pepper marinade or other kid-friendly marinades.
- Serve cut-up raw veggies with a fun dip, like low-fat ranch dressing or raspberry vinaigrette. If your kids only like one or two veggies, it’s OK to repeat often. Serve fruits with a sweet, low-fat yogurt dip — just like fondue!
- Top poultry or veggies, such as broccoli, cauliflower, and asparagus, with your favorite jarred marinara sauce and/or part-skim mozzarella or Parmesan cheese.
- Cut vegetables or fruits into fun shapes with small cookie cutters. This works really well with red and yellow bell pepper, raw beet (which is actually really sweet!), cucumber, apple, pear and melon.
- Take it a step further by using veggies to create fun objects, like celery boats. Fill celery stalks with low-fat cream cheese and top with red pepper “sails.” Cut veggies into strips and other shapes and use to design faces or artwork on whole-wheat mini pitas spread with low-fat cream cheese or ranch dressing.
- Mix chopped or grated veggies (zucchini and carrot work well) into meatloaf, soups, chili, marinara sauce, casseroles or other mixed dishes.
- Dump extra veggies (frozen, bite-size mixed veggies are ideal for this) into canned soup or frozen dinners at lunchtime. Your kids will hardly notice the extra veg!
Find out if Joy’s LIFE Diet is right for you at .