Few things cause more parental frustration than trying to get a picky eater to enjoy a well-rounded diet. Whether your child has been picky all his life, or, out of nowhere is now turning up his nose at healthy foods he previously adored, it’s easy to feel like your failing as a caregiver.
“I think we need to remember that it is developmentally appropriate for children to not only move in and out of enjoying certain foods, but also to test limits and boundaries with their parents around refusing to eat what we give them,” says Dr. Aimee Gould Shunney, a licensed naturopathic doctor specializing in women’s health and family medicine.
A parent herself, when Shunney’s son goes through phases when he eats only certain things, she tries to remain consistent and optimistic.
“I believe it’s part of my job as a mama to keep a positive tone in my voice as I offer variety, explain the importance of protein for muscles and smarts, and sing the praises of eating a rainbow – even after a full day’s work while going up against a tired first-grader who only wants dessert,” she says. “I think the biggest mistake we make is when we just give up and give in because, well, it can be exhausting.”
To help parents win the food fights and bring peace to the dinner table, Shunney offers five simple ideas for transforming a child with finicky tendencies into an amazing eater with optimal nutrition.
1. Cook more. Cook for your children and make their dishes simple without lots of sauces and spices. If possible, let them help you cook so they can be part of the fun. Cooking whole unprocessed foods will ensure your family is getting the biggest nutrition bang for your buck. There will be less sodium, sugar, additive and preservatives as well.
2. Eat more veggies. Present them with choices: Would you like carrots or red peppers? Pickles or olives? Try starting dinner with a raw veggie plate and let your kids select what they want. It’s a healthy appetizer that makes eating whole foods a regular part of the meal routine.
3. Pick your protein. Find three protein meals your kids like and use them often for dinner and lunches. Peanut butter and jelly should not be an everyday option. Other ideas: Alaskan salmon burgers, organic chicken strips and eating breakfast for dinner that includes a protein like eggs. Choose animal products that are pastured and fed organic feed. If you eat beef, choose grass-fed – this will provide better fats for your children’s development, immune system and cognitive function, as well as help you avoid exposure to chemicals and antibiotics.
4. Supplements. Supplements are really important for kids – even ones who eat well. A good multivitamin can help bridge the gap for a picky eater. Add in an omega-3 EPA and DHA supplement which has numerous well-researched benefits in areas like childhood immunity, behavior and attention, cognitive function and emotional well-being. Try a vitamin D supplement – 400 I.U. for breast-fed infants, 500 I.U. from 1-3 years old, 800 I.U. from 4-8 years old, and 1300 I.U. from 9-18 years old.
5. Show them. Teach them good eating habits by modeling good eating habits. Share your favorite foods. Sit down at the table and eat. Love your veggies. Relish your protein. Don’t overdo it on starch. Take it easy on dessert. Drink water. Enjoy your food.
“We often take health and nutrition way too seriously and it stops being any fun. I believe that eating food is one of the supreme joys of life, particularly when it’s eaten with people you love!” says Shunney. “Planning meals, preparing food, eating it together while talking and laughing – even the clean up – can all be fun if we make that our intention. The more fun it is, the more our kids will want to participate, and the more they do that, the more engaged they will be around food and family.”