You’ve been there before: gawking at the neighbour’s child devouring kale power bowls while your child, instead, screams at vegetables, but readily eats an old cheese puff from behind the couch. In desperation, you Google “picky eater nutrition” which reveals 1.4 million hits — not helping. Down the rabbit hole you go, looking at recipes to sneak in vegetables or bake beans into brownies. As a pediatric dietitian who has worked with her fair share of picky eaters, let me reassure you that there are larger things you can focus on as a parent to set your child up for nutritional success.
1. Embrace the Division of Responsibility.The Division of Responsibility (DOR) is a framework for feeding that suggests caregivers decide what, when and where food is offered. The only job of the child is to decide if they choose to eat and how much. Often, mealtime battles can be traced to someone straying from their lane, like making two different dinners. As a parent, it is your responsibility to decide what’s on the menu. You can respect your child’s right to refuse to eat it, but you also have the right to refuse to make an alternative meal. While the sounds of these limits tug at the heartstrings, followed consistently, these guidelines help children learn about rules around food.
2. Monkey see, monkey do.Children learn by example. Healthy eating is next to impossible if a child sees the adults in their life skipping meals, yo-yo dieting or scoffing at vegetables. Model the behaviours you want to see and practice them together. This is especially true in blended or multigenerational households. Stepdad or grandma don’t get a free pass! The families that are most successful make the change as a team.
3. Look for escape foods.Escape foods, or as I call them “crutch foods,” are used as a tactic to avoid trying something new. If you keep finding empty bowls of cereal or granola bar wrappers after your child claimed to be too full for dinner, you may have an avoidant eater. Identify those trigger foods and temporarily keep them out of the house to guide your child back to other nutritious choices.
4. Be firm about sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs).Soda, juice, chocolate milk, iced tea, bubble tea, flavoured coffees and sports drinks are high in added sugars. These sugars, especially fructose, have been linked with increased rates of obesity and other chronic health diseases such as precursors to diabetes (insulin resistance), high cholesterol and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. A study in 2016 showed that just cutting down fructose and substituting those calories with other carbohydrate types improved children’s cholesterol profiles in just nine days!
5. Eat together.A friend of mine years ago once saw me rushing while eating alone and told me: “Only horses eat standing up.” Supposedly this was an old Hungarian expression his mother used, signifying to slow down and eat with others. While we aren’t in 1950s Hungary, growing evidence supports these traditional views. Children who eat with their family tend to have better eating behaviours and eat more vegetables, while teens may have better family relationships and emotional wellbeing. Parents benefit too! Research in the Journal of Preventive Medicine showed families that ate seven or more meals together weekly scored better in family functioning, self-esteem, reported fewer depressive symptoms and better relationship strength. Not a bad payout for Sunday morning brunch! When it comes to food, what we’ve learned is that HOW you eat is equally important as WHAT you eat. For more information on how you can support your family’s nutrition plan, meet with a dietitian or visit nutritionmonth2020.ca.
Stefania Palmeri is a registered dietitian who works in corporate health care, outpatient hospital programs and private practice. She is a graduate of the Nutrition and Food Program as well as the Nutrition Communication Post-Graduate Program through The Faculty of Community Services (School of Nutrition).