LiveSmart: Just Try One Bite! Managing Mealtime Battles with Kids

[This article was written by Mark Osborn, M.D., Chief of Pediatrics for St. Peter’s Hospital, and a provider with St. Peter’s Health Center for Children.]

If you are the parent of a picky eater, you likely know the frustration of being locked in a daily battle of wills with your child over when, how and what to eat. And, pun intended, it can often feel all-consuming.

To reduce food fights, parents need to recognize they and their children have different responsibilities. Power struggles around food can be reduced when both the parent and child understand their role at mealtime. Fair warning though – it takes some fortitude, and it takes some practice.

Parents Decide What Food is Served and When Food is Served

  • Serve a variety of foods from all groups – lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Make sure there is something the children like at each meal.
  • Use small amounts of sugar, salt, fats and oils with highly nutritious foods to enhance enjoyment and consumption.
  • Schedule regular times for meals and snacks and expect children to come eat at that time. If a child does not eat at a meal and wants food afterwards, tell the child to wait until the next meal or snack time. However, do not put children to bed hungry.

Children Decide How Much to Eat and Whether or Not to Eat

  • Serve small portions and don’t enforce a clean plate policy. Allow children to ask for second helpings. A toddler only eats one to two tablespoons of food at a time and may eat well at one meal and not at the next.
  • Don’t tell the child he has or has not eaten enough. His body will tell him if he is hungry.
  • Don’t worry if a child doesn’t eat well at a meal. If the child is not snacking too often, he will eat if he is hungry.
  • Even if a child does not eat, have the child sit at the table to show that mealtimes are important for the family.

Studies show it takes an average of 12 exposures to a new food for a child to accept it. They might turn up their nose at hummus the first time, but if you offer it on a regular basis, you might find they soon are asking for it as their go-to dip for veggies.

Be mindful of your child limiting themselves exclusively to certain textures of food, as it might be more than just picky eating at play and it could be a sign of a sensory processing disorder (SPD). If you have concerns, don’t hesitate to contact your pediatrician, who can help you determine if a very picky eater should be evaluated for the condition.

St. Peter’s Health Center for Children, 1092 Madison Avenue in Albany, offers a complete range of services for children from newborns to age 18. Services include well-child routine care, sick child exams, school and camp physicals, sports physicals, immunizations, health maintenance and education, and access to other hospital services and referrals to specialists. Call 518-525-2445 for more information or an appointment.

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