The peak years of picky eating are between ages 2 and 6, as children begin to want more independence. “The two things you can’t get toddlers to do – you can’t get them to eat and you can’t get them to go to the bathroom on the potty,” says Jill Castle, pediatric dietitian and founder of Nourished Child, who is working on a nutrition and wellness book for children. “Toddlers want autonomy over their bodies.”
If you have a picky eater, Castle says, that means your child is going through a typical developmental phase.
This is why it is important to have a long-term nutritional vision. One meal, or 10, is not going to make or break your child’s diet. And a balanced diet for a child may look a little different than you think.
The vast majority of picky eaters still get the nutrients they need, according to Castle. “We know that most kids eat a lot of protein, unless they’re extremely picky eaters,” Castle says, noting that many grains and dairy products contain protein, not just meat. When she consults for a difficult diet, she watches the whole week, or even two, for nutritional insight.
Lead by example. Rethinking picky eating doesn’t mean giving up on healthy meals — it means accepting that not all attempts work. Parents should try to include healthy foods in their child’s diet every day and at every meal, says Claire McCarthy, primary care pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital and assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. “Their child may or may not eat them, but the more normal and familiar they become, the more likely a child is to try them.” The earlier you start, the better.
Model the behavior you want to see, says McCarthy. “If you don’t eat fruits and vegetables every day, your child will notice.”
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Keep it simple. A rule of thumb that Castle uses is to try to get protein on the plate and as much color as possible. If your child doesn’t eat anything, that’s okay, try again at the next meal or snack. And if all else fails, she suggests making food presentation as simple as possible. Put bowls of raw carrots, grapes, cherries or any other handy fruit and vegetable on the table and (hopefully) watch them disappear.
“Children can get suspicious when they can’t identify what’s in front of them,” Castle says. “The plain is really their wheelhouse. But it doesn’t have to be one or the other – it can be single foods and the most complex. »
No begging, bribery or harassment. Perhaps the hardest thing for parents to learn is that the more you focus on what your child eats and try to coax or bribe him into eating healthy foods, the more he is likely to become an opponent. Try to be neutral as much as possible, says Castle.
“Picky eating is often less about the food than about whether the child likes coming to the table,” she says. “If the table is just drudgery, pressure and criticism about food and behavior, it’s not going to be pleasant. A goal should be to not talk about food at the table at all.
Imagine you’re going out to dinner with a friend who keeps commenting on your food – “Why don’t you eat this?” I don’t think you should have dessert because you haven’t finished your chicken. How about a few more bites of broccoli? » You would go crazy, and rightly so. Well, your kids probably feel the same way. Although most children don’t become picky eaters, repeating it constantly can cause it to continue into adulthood.
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The reverse can also happen, Castle explains. Some children may want to conform and please their parents so much that they ignore their bodies or their appetites and eat too much.
That’s why it’s all the more important for parents to give themselves a break as a food police and understand that for most children, meeting their nutritional needs is often easier than you think. Even if you’re cycling between the same or so five foods a day, if your child is exposed to protein, grains, dairy or non-dairy alternatives, fruits and vegetables, that’s probably enough, Castle says. Just keep adding new foods over time. (As always, there are outliers – if your child isn’t gaining weight or height or you have specific dietary questions, talk to your pediatrician.)
Relieve dinner pressure. Nutritionally, dinner isn’t the end of it all. Most toddlers have their nutritional needs met even before dinner, Castle says, especially if you offer healthy foods like fruits and vegetables throughout the day. And milk alone can often be enough for your child’s daily protein.
Instead, make dinner a time when the family gets together. “When a child sees their parents enjoying the meal, good conversation and food flowing, they’ll want to be part of it,” Castle says. (You can find tips for family conversation here.)
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And don’t be a short-lived cook, McCarthy says. “If your child isn’t eating the meal everyone else is eating, the alternative should be something healthy and boring – like unsweetened cereal with milk – not nuggets and fries.”
She also suggests involving the child in shopping or food preparation and being smart about prompts. Suggest fun activities — like reading a book, going for a walk, or choosing the next family movie or dinner menu — rather than bribing with dessert. When you create a food hierarchy by bribing or banning, it only makes dessert more appealing and healthy food less. In other words: take things in moderation.
When I step back, what I find comforting is knowing that I don’t have much control over my children’s intrinsic likes and dislikes anyway. I have two children, and one eats oysters, king crab claws, calamari and hot peppers. He is 9 years old. My other eats penne, chicken nuggets, crackers and bread. She is 7 years old. They both came out of my body. I ate similar foods in both pregnancies. I exposed them to the same foods as babies and toddlers.
Conclusion: We probably have much less influence over what our children eat than we think. And while it’s our job to provide healthy food for our children, it will always be their job to eat it.