Helping Picky Eaters Expand Their Palate

So you think you have a picky eater? Consider the child who would eat just one food: a certain fast-food brand of fried chicken nuggets, only in the original box. When the restaurant changed packages, Mom raced to buy all the old boxes she could find.

She also turned to the Marcus Institute’s Feeding Disorders Program. Nutritionist Aida Miles, R.D., of the Atlanta-based program says she sees parents “standing on their heads” to get food into a child.

When it's a problem

Although a lot of young children are finicky about food, they need help when they won’t eat the amount or variety required to keep up their nutritional status. A child living on one junk food may look OK, but poor nutrient intake will take a toll.

Up to one in four kids has an eating problem in early childhood. Most soon outgrow that peanut butter-only phase, but 1 to 2 percent need professional aid. Physical problems, such as food allergies or metabolic disorders, underlie some cases.

Some children will eat only certain types of food. Others will eat little or nothing at all.

Parents can help by exposing children to new foods again and again. “With most children, just having it on the table in front of them seems to work,” Miles says.

But well-meaning parents can promote bad behaviors—for example, letting kids end a meal by throwing a fit, says David L. Jaquess, Ph.D., director of Marcus’ Feeding Disorders Program.

What you can do

Here are some tips from the Marcus experts:

  • Remain calm. In most cases, your child’s behavior is typical.

  • Don’t force a child to clean his or her plate.

  • Allow no snacks or juice at least an hour before meals.

  • Avoid mealtime wars with kids.

  • Ignore tantrums. Many kids will give them up in a few days. “It gets more intense before it gets better,” Dr. Jaquess warns.

  • Make changes so gradual your child doesn’t notice. If you know your child will balk after four bites, for example, stop after four bites. In a few days, try five or six.

  • Praise good behavior, such as trying new foods.

  • Be consistent. Make sure other caregivers follow your lead.

  • Talk to your child’s doctor if your child’s nutrition is becoming critical, mealtime disruptions have worsened for months, progress has stalled—or you’re overwhelmed.

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