Picky eaters can be difficult obstacle for some parents to overcome. Help is on the way, with this article courtesy of Jersey’s Best:

While it’s common for kids to go through periods of selective or “picky” eating, tableside protests are frustrating for all parties involved: “I’m not eating that.” “I don’t like it.” “It looks yucky.” “It smells weird.” “Can I have something else?” “I’m not hungry.” The chorus of complaints heard at kitchen tables ‘round the world is one that parents would prefer to tune out. 

And when eating behaviors become habits, each mealtime can turn into a power battle that leaves exhausted caregivers worried and wondering how they will ever get their child to eat a balanced meal. 

Do you have a picky eater at your table? Don’t lose hope, say leading pediatric experts. There are ways to address mealtime concerns in a healthy way, and it starts with understanding why these habits develop in the first place. 

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Why are some kids picky eaters? 

Childhood eating problems can crop up for a number of reasons. Like adults, kids can have aversions to certain tastes, textures or smells. Studies show babies’ and kids’ food choices and sensitivities are influenced by age and culture — even our genes, too. Some food aversions can be tied to sensory issues or to a negative food experience (like being forced to eat something unpleasant or seeing someone choke or gag on food). Our tastes also can change as we get older, for better or worse, and you may find your once-adventurous little foodie now only wants to eat what their friends at school are eating. 

Anyone — regardless of age, weight, gender or any other factor — can struggle with eating issues, just as anyone can benefit from expanding his or her palate. Once you understand where picky habits stem from, you can work on healthy ways to deal with them. Here are a few recommendations to help address eating issues in a positive way. 

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Know your role, and theirs. “Think of mealtimes as a dual responsibility — you have some, your child has some. As the parent, you are in charge of where and when the food is provided. They get to decide whether they are hungry and how much to eat,” said Barbara Mintz, registered dietician and senior vice president for healthy living and community engagement at RWJBarnabas Health. 

Schedule mealtimes around the same times. Pick a slot each day, and offer snacks in between meals. This way, you won’t worry if they skip a meal, knowing they’ll have another opportunity to eat in a little while. 

Let them say no. Everyone, even babies, should be allowed to decide whether and how much to eat. According to Mintz, our eating preferences begin to form as early as 7 to 8 months of age. When they are old enough, offer a variety of foods and let them eat what the rest of the family is eating. Be patient and persistent. Never force them to eat, and don’t get angry if they refuse. Remember: Saying “yes” or “no” at mealtime is a way for young kids to exercise decision making — something they may not get to do in other areas of life. 

Drop the ‘clean plate club’ mentality. Moms and dads who grew up in a certain era may struggle with this, but it’s not necessarily better to eat every last bite. If kids are taught that eating everything in front of them is inherently “good” behavior, they may push themselves to eat more than they want. Mintz said this can cause them to lose touch with their biological hunger and the natural urge to stop eating when full. This behavior, once ingrained, can be a tough one to break — and can even lead to future emotional and health issues. 

Keep things equal. One of the worst things we can do is reward eating with a sweet or punish them by taking away a dessert, Mintz said. “This creates a value system whereby the dessert becomes more valuable than the healthy food.” She recommends putting the whole meal on one plate so each item has equal value. Then let them decide what to eat. Most kids intuitively know what their bodies need, she said — “given the choice, they will pick the right things eventually.” 

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Try the two-bite rule. Encourage kids to try a few morsels of a given food with the condition that if they do not like it, they don’t have to finish it. Don’t get discouraged if they reject a food. “It can take 15 or more tries of a bite of a new food for a child to like something new,” said Jane Harrington-Noonan, lead registered dietician for Goryeb Children’s Hospital’s Kid Fit programs at Morristown Medical Center. Keep mealtimes stress-free, and avoid talking about the new food if that’s a trigger. 

Don’t yuck my yum. Make it known to everyone at the table that it’s not polite to react in an over-the-top or rude way if the food on someone else’s plate is grossing you out. 

Get creative. When kids get involved in preparing the dishes on the table, they appreciate the effort that goes into creating a family meal. Gather ingredients and cook together, then sit down and taste the fruits (and veggies) of your labor. “Try the same food cooked different ways and serve in small bites. Have a chart to check off when they have tried a new food. You can even pretend your kitchen is a restaurant and you are chefs or food critics,” Harrington-Noonan said. 

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If needed, get support. When you have a difficult eater on your hands, it can be easy to give in to feelings of guilt, anger or hopelessness. Give yourself some grace and don’t take their eating habits personally or blame yourself or anyone else. Remember that it’s the behavior, not the person, that’s the problem — and go from there. 

If you are concerned that your child is not eating a balanced diet or getting enough nutrition, a registered dietitian can help. Click here to contact Jane Harrington-Noonan or click here to contact Barbara Mintz and the experts at RWJBarnabas Health. 

Kerry Serzan is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Star-Ledger. A lifelong New Jerseyan, she lives “down the Shore” in Sea Girt with her husband Joe and their children.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Jersey’s Best. Subscribe here for in-depth access to everything that makes the Garden State great.

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