Young children often like to binge on one food at a time. They may eat only fruits one day, and vegetables the next. Expect your picky eater to eat well one day and eat practically nothing the day after that. So, take the pressure off yourself and aim for a nutritionally-balanced week, not a balanced day. Here are some Sears family tricks we learned in parenting our eight picky eaters:
Offer a nibble tray
Toddlers like to graze, and they enjoy being presented with a variety of choices. Use an ice-cube tray, a muffin tin or a compartmentalized dish, and put bite-size portions of colorful and nutritious foods in each section. Call these finger foods playful names that a young child can appreciate, such as:
+ apple moons (thinly sliced)
+ avocado boats (a quarter of an avocado)
+ broccoli trees (steamed broccoli florets)
+ banana wheels
+ cheese building blocks
+ carrot swords (cooked and thinly sliced)
+ egg canoes (hard boiled egg wedges)
+ little O’s (o-shaped cereal)
Place the container on an easy-to-reach table and watch the food disappear. Before long, the tray will be empty and your child’s tummy will be full, and all with no food hassles. (These foods have a table-life of an hour or two.)
Young children love the messy fun of dipping. Try:
+ cottage cheese or tofu dip
+ cream cheese
+ fruit juice-sweetened preserves
+ peanut butter (thinly spread after dipping)
+ pureed fruits or vegetables
+ Greek yogurt, plain or sweetened with juice concentrate
Toddlers like spreading, or more accurately, smearing. Show them how to use a table knife to spread cheese, peanut butter and fruit concentrate onto crackers, toast or rice cakes. (Of course, supervise closely to make sure they are safe.)
Toddlers are into toppings. Putting nutritious, familiar favorites on top of new or less-desirable foods is a way to broaden the picky eater’s menu. Favorite toppings are Greek yogurt, cream cheese, melted cheese, guacamole, tomato sauce, applesauce and peanut butter.
If your picky eater would rather drink than eat, don’t despair. Make a fruit and yogurt smoothie. You can also sneak some vegetables in there. The window of opportunity for shaping young tastes is greatest in the first few years. The earlier you start feeding your children a “real food diet,” the easier it will be to shape their tastes toward healthy foods. Remember, you want your children to regard food as a fun and normal part of life, not one full of restrictions and force-feeding. Presentation will be everything. Above all, don’t fuss over food portions or how much your child eats. A healthy child will rarely go hungry.
Become a veggie vendor
Vegetables require some creative marketing for a picky eater. How much do toddlers need? Although kids should be offered three to five servings of veggies a day, for children under 5 each serving need be only a tablespoon for each year of age. In other words, a 2-year-old should ideally consume two tablespoons of vegetables three to five times a day. If you aren’t the proud parent of a veggie lover, try the following tricks:
+ Plant a garden with your child.
Let them help care for the plants, harvest the ripe vegetables and wash and prepare them. They will probably be much more interested in eating what they helped to grow.
+ Sneak grated or diced vegetables into favorite foods.
Try adding them to rice, cottage cheese, cream cheese, guacamole or even macaroni and cheese. Zucchini pancakes are a big hit at our house, as are carrot muffins. We call them “sneakies.”
+ Camouflage vegetables with a favorite sauce, but with moderation in mind.
+ Use vegetables as finger foods and dunk them in a favorite sauce or dip.
+ Using a small cookie cutter, cut the vegetables into fun shapes.
+ Steam your greens.
They are much more flavorful and usually sweeter than when raw.
+ Make veggie art.
Create colorful faces with olive-slice eyes, tomato ears, mushroom noses, bell pepper mustaches and any other playful features you can think of. Our eighth child, Lauren, loved to put olives on the tip of each finger. “Olive fingers” would then nibble this nutritious and nutrient-dense food off her fingertips. Zucchini pancakes make a terrific face to which you can add pea eyes, a carrot nose and cheese hair.
Bill Sears, M.D., is a father of eight and the author of 42 books on family health, including The Healthiest Kid in the Neighborhood and The NDD Book. A practicing pediatrician for over 40 years, he is an Associate Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine. Dr. Sears is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and a fellow of the Royal College of Pediatricians (RCP).