Mealtimes were a breeze for Uptown resident Margaret Stewart and her daughter, who is now 6. But once her son came along, the mealtime battles began.
“He will not even eat spaghetti or hamburgers,” she said of her 4-year-old son. “All he really wants is chocolate milk.”
Struggles over mealtimes can be a familiar scenario with young children, and many parents despair over their child’s insistence on eating nothing but the classic stand-bys of chicken nuggets and mac-and-cheese. But according to Kate Kinne, registered dietitian at the Galter LifeCenter and Eating Well blogger for Well Community, there are ways parents can overcome dinner dismay and encourage their children to adopt a lifestyle of eating healthy at an early age.
Kinne said one of the most important things to realize is that kids will eat when they’re hungry, and it’s OK to let them leave the dinner table without eating — they’ll eventually learn that if they are hungry, they need to eat what’s in front of them.
“From a child’s perspective, this [eating habits] is one of the ways they can exercise independence and control,” she said. “So as a parent, your role is to provide what and when to eat, and it’s up to them to eat it.”
• Don’t cater to the pickiness. Cook and serve what you want your child to eat.
• Set a good example. Eat your veggies at the table with your child at mealtime.
• Offer foods from most of the food groups at every meal.
• The menu should be age appropriate with items that appeal to kids and adults.
• Try and try again. It may take several attempts before a new food is accepted.
• Make sure your child is hungry at mealtime. This means limit the snacking, including beverages.
• Involve your kids in menu planning, shopping and cooking. This offers them some control.
• Limit distractions at mealtime.
• Provide structure. Kids thrive on routine.
• Set time limits for mealtime. For example, 20-30 minutes may be the maximum sitting time for a 3-year-old.
• Serve new foods along with familiar favorites. Trying something new may be scary for young children, so seeing a familiar food on their plates might help them try the new ones.
• Make portion sizes realistic: Don’t expect small children to eat a whole chicken breast or an adult-sized portion of veggies.
• Make meals fun by playing with food shapes, colors and food presentation.
• Vary food textures and/or preparation methods.
Most importantly, Kinne says to keep your anxiety to yourself and never force a child to eat.
“Don’t discuss your frustrations in front of the child,” she said. “Remain calm and as neutral as possible during mealtime. If they won’t eat, take it away and calmly let them know they can wait until the next meal is served.”
To learn more about nutrition, portion sizes and delicious recipes for the family, Kinne recommends these websites:
• Kidseatright.org, sponsored by the American Dietetic Association
• Yummly.com, a recipe site
• Weelicious.com, a mommy blog with kid-friendly and creative recipes
During the event, Amie Krantz from Whole Foods Market Sauganash demonstrated nutritious recipes sure to please even the pickiest of eaters, including a Blueberry Banana Smoothie and a Spaghetti Squash Marinara with Garlic Bread. She also created a kid-friendly version of Spinach-Mushroom Quesadillas with Feta by substituting butter for olive oil and leaving out the cumin and coriander. Find more recipes at www.wholefoodsmarket.com.
Even dietitians can have picky kids
Kate Kinne, registered dietitian at the Galter LifeCenter and Eating Well blogger for Well Community, has personal experience to back up her expert advice.
“My son was on the small side and was allergic to eggs and nuts, so we were constantly worried about him consuming enough calories,” she said.
Considering these factors, Kinne and her husband made getting him to eat the priority, which translated into anxiety-filled dinners where he would only eat hot dogs or mac-and-cheese.
“He learned that no matter what we put in front of him, the hot dog would be waiting in the wings,” she said.
Kinne and her husband consulted with pediatric dietitians on her son’s eating habits.
“They explained that children will not starve themselves, and it’s OK if they leave the dinner table without eating,” she said. “Once we heard that, we felt more comfortable setting out our dinner together as a family, without the back-up hot dog awaiting my son. It was hard at first to let him leave the table without eating, but he quickly learned to eat what was put in front of him if he was hungry. I’m happy to report our family dinner times are now less stressful and more pleasant.”