Parents face many behavioral problems in the first couple years of their child’s life. One of the most frustrating is the battle at mealtime. 

Parents often come to my office complaining about their kids’ picky eating habits. This can start before the first birthday. A baby I recently saw wanted to eat “snacks and ice cream,” but no other solid foods. More often it starts in toddlers and young children who used to eat well and suddenly refuse well-balanced meals. This is frustrating for parents who worry their children are not receiving the necessary nutrients, but don’t know how to fix it.

If not corrected, picky eating can last throughout a person’s life. It’s important for parents to offer a variety of foods early on, starting when the child is a baby, as long as those foods are age appropriate. If your baby doesn’t seem interested in a certain type of food, the most important thing is to not get frustrated or lose patience. It often takes several days to get used to a new food. If they are not interested the first day, then offer small amounts of the same food the next few days. It can take as many as five to 10 trials of a new food before children become accustomed to the new food and accept it.  

Picky eating becomes more popular once children become toddlers. They don’t need as many calories since weight gain slows, and appetite slows with it. This is also the age when children start to assert their independence, which includes saying no to foods they previously enjoyed. Over time, their food preferences will even out, but the process can be frustrating and test your patience.

It is always helpful to eat as a family, with scheduled meal times, and to minimize any media distractions. When parents model good eating habits, kids will be more likely to mimic their behaviors. You shouldn’t make separate meals for kids when they refuse the food, as it encourages picky eating habits. Sometimes this may mean skipping a meal every now and then, but if children are hungry enough, they’ll eat the food in front of them. 

One way to avoid fights at the table is to offer options, either by asking what vegetables they would like to eat before preparing the meal, or by having multiple healthy choices at meals. When kids can choose the vegetable they feel like they have input in what they’re eating and are more agreeable. Toddlers also enjoy when meals are fun, so try to arrange the food into colorful shapes and patterns, and cut the food into bite-sized pieces that are easy for them to pick up and eat themselves.

Sometimes eating problems may be more severe. There are children who have oral aversions or aversions to certain textures. It’s important to talk to your pediatrician to make sure they are getting the proper nutrients, or to visit a feeding specialist if needed. I can personally attest to some texture problems that never seem to go away, since I have yet to discover a way to tolerate cream cheese. However, I can assure you that early intervention is the best way to ensure a healthy, well-balanced diet for life.

Dr. Laura Shefner writes about pediatric care for the Cleveland Jewish News. She is a pediatrician at The MetroHealth System and practices in Beachwood and Parma.

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