Dealing with a Picky Eater: Confessions of an RDN Mother…
During the month of August we are celebrating “Kids Eat Right” at Lemond Nutrition. Helping kids to eat right is not always easy. Eating right does not always follow an equation or a checklist; 2 + 2 does not always add up to 4 right away, completing the checklist does not always mean complete or finished. What I do know is that eating right is always a process throughout all lifecycle ages and stages. For me, I often describe my job as a coach or cheerleader for families working towards healthy goals. As an RDN, I provide a toolbox of evidenced-based solutions and professional insight on how to maximize nutrition to support the development and maintenance of sharp minds, strong bodies, and healthy lives for the whole family.
I have a confession. I am a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), and my child is a “picky” eater to say the least. I can easily count the number of foods she is willing to eat and accept. She is perfectly happy with eating the same food items over and over again. She can also be described as a strong-willed, spirited child, and her pickiness started at the perfect developmental age many refer to as the “terrible two’s.” There were many other things left behind with the terrible twos and challenging threes, but her picky eating behaviors and habits have persisted and remained for several years now, as she is starting 1st grade in the next few weeks.
People are amazed and surprised when they realize and learn how picky my daughter is. They just assume that my daughter wouldn’t and shouldn’t be picky because I am a dietitian. Honestly, some days I am a little embarrassed that I am providing advice on how to manage “picky” eaters, when my very own child is incredibly picky and limited in the foods she is willing to eat. However, as a parent I remain confident in how we parent, manage, encourage, and improve of the variety of foods she eats. So in the observance of Kids Eat Right, I decided to share both my professional insight combined with my personal experiences.
1. Is my child eating enough? The answer to this question can be found in the correct plotting and professional interpretation of your child’s growth charts. If their growth is consistently following the same percentile; then yes, your child is getting enough calories and protein to support growth. Growth charts not only show us if their weight and height are appropriate for their age, but they also show us that the rate of growth is appropriate for their age.
As a mother, before I get anxious about her nutrition, I refer to her growth charts. Since her rate of growth, height, and weight consistently chart on the same percentile lines, I have confidence and am reassured that she is meeting her needs adequately and appropriately. My daughter can support her growth and development with the foods she is eating.
2. As an RDN and parent, I preach and practice (or at least try to practice) Ellyn Satter’s evidenced-based principles of the “Division of Responsibility” between parents and children for feeding. It is the parent’s responsibility to provide the foods to eat, and determine when to eat. It is the child’s responsibility to decide if they are going to eat and how much they are going to eat. As a parent, you determine that now is time to snack and now is time for a meal; if she decides not to eat at that time, then the next meal or snack is just right around the corner. It is a balance in trusting your child’s hunger cues, but not allowing them to snack too much so that it encourages their appetite for the next meal and what is offered. It is OK for your child to be hungry and ready to eat. As parents, we trust and have confidence in our daughter’s hunger cues.
3. Instead of focusing on how little or how much a child is eating, concentrate and offer a variety of foods. Measure variety of foods by the variety of color in the foods that are being eaten. Encourage eating a rainbow to help with fruit and vegetable intake. Luckily, my daughter does like a variety of fruit. (Her diet is significantly lacking in vegetables, but again something to work on). Our “goal” and rule is 3-servings of different fruits each day. For what it is worth, I do not count applesauce, juice, or fruit in pouches as a serving of fruit; I only count “whole” fruit that is fresh, frozen, or canned depending on the season and availability.
I would say that she agreeably meets the goal of eating 3-fruits a day five out of seven days of the week. Studies have shown that kids can meet their vitamin and mineral needs by eating as little as 3-servings of different fruits and/or vegetables each day. Of course, more fruits and vegetables is always better, but 3-servings is a good starting point. We also strive for 3-servings of dairy each day, as it is another nutrient dense food that provides different vitamins, minerals, and health benefits than fruit and vegetables.
4. Snacking. Children need to snack in order to meet all their needs for growth and development. Children cannot meet their nutritional needs with just 3-meals a day. My child snacks. Both at home and on-the-go, we always have with us and provide healthy, wholesome, and quality snacks. I plan ahead and pack snacks. Also when snacking, we provide both a carbohydrate source (i.e. pretzels or crackers), with a protein source (i.e. nut butter or yogurt). If it were up to my daughter, she would just limit herself to eating carbohydrates all day long, which limits the amount of nutrition she is receiving. But when pairing the carbohydrates with protein, I know she is enhancing the nutritional value of her snacks. However, truth be told and I must admit, that even from this “healthier” selection, we probably offer the snacks that she prefers or likes most often. But, we recognize this as an area in need of improvement and we will work on it all in good time. In the meantime, I have knowing she is eating healthier, balanced snacks – variety in snacks and more structure with snack timing is something as parents we need to work on as a part of our division of responsibilities.
5. Remember that you are a “role model.” – The saying is “monkey see, monkey do;” not “monkey say…” Actions speak louder than words, science and evidence also supports this concept. Both good and bad habits are learned. Did you know that: infants and toddlers are most influenced by their parents eating habits; but that young children (grade school) start to be more influenced by the eating habits of their siblings and other close family members; and that teens are most influenced by the eating habits of their peers and friends. If we all raise our children into teenagers that make healthy choices, they will encourage each other to make healthy choices. It can be a very positive and self-fulfilling prophesy.
6. Allow children to participate and help with food preparation and serving. Do not let time or the potential of a mess be barriers to this process. Children are sensory creatures. They learn through all of their senses – eating involves all of the senses. The more often children are exposed to different foods through touch, see, smell, and sound, the more receptive they will become to taste or sample these foods. Again, research supports that frequent and multiple exposures encourage children to expand their food choices through familiarity.
Also keep in mind that exposure to foods can also include “food activities.” Art projects with foods – bean & lentil pictures, macaroni necklaces, food science experiments, painting with natural food colors and discuss what foods made those colors, etc. Activities can also include going to a local farmer’s market and having each member of the family choose one fruit or vegetable to bring home for the family to eat.
7. Do not underestimate the value of a healthy food and eating environment to promote healthy eating habits. First, make sure that you are offering child-size servings, not adult sized servings. Eat together as a family. Limit distractions (i.e. turn all screens off). Make eating enjoyable and memorable. When role modeling positive eating habits and behaviors, teach the importance of good nutrition and do not focus on the consequences of bad nutrition. Do not bribe or reward with dessert; do not put conditions on foods. The days of making a “happy plate” are gone. When talking about food, always use positive messages that food helps us to be strong and healthy. Food helps us to focus and concentrate. Food gives us energy to perform well in school and physical activity. Food helps us heal when we are sick.
So in conclusion, look at the big picture of health and nutrition. Just like you want to focus on the foods that you can put on your plate, and the foods that can be eaten, when dealing with a picky eater, we also look at the big picture of eating habits, growth, development, and attitudes and beliefs about food. Even though my child remains a picky eater, progress is slow, and there are things my husband I can do differently to help with her acceptance and variety of food choices; at the of the day, we are the best role models that we can be. I know that she is growing and developing as she should. I have confidence in the quality of foods she eats. I trust her hunger cues. Most importantly, she demonstrates healthy attitudes and beliefs about foods. All of these things make both my RDN and mother’s heart happy.