Picky eaters – You can turn them on to healthy food!

Have you seen the commercial for Kellogg’s Eggo’s? The one with the child who dances away from breakfast to the song, “Can’t Touch This” to illustrate his picky eating habits? My experience with picky eaters is exactly like that. More often than not picky eaters dig in their heels and parents eventually cave in to fast food, candy, soda, and a variety of unhealthy choices. Long term, this behavior may results in poor eating habits, nutritional deficiencies, decreased energy, adult obesity, and poorer immunity. In the short term, it’s a nightmare to struggle with a picky eater at every meal, day in and day out. So what can you do when your picky eater’s theme song becomes “Can’t touch this”?

Try these 10 great tips to get picky eaters on the right track:
1) Sneak healthy items into foods they already eat. If they love smoothies in the morning, sneak some spinach into the regular recipe and make it a “Green Monster” – there’s no additional taste but a cool new color and a ton of additional nutrients. Other ways to sneak in healthier foods include adding diced fruit over their favorite cereal, mixing fruit into muffins and pancakes, and in the summer time, making frozen fruit popsicles.
2) Play with colors and make dinner time a game: try to eat 5 different colors per meal. Adding color to the mix helps take the focus away from what the picky eater does not want to eat, and instead focuses on trying to get as many colors in their meal as possible. So if your picky eater likes only cheese burgers, add green for lettuce, red for tomatoes, orange for sweet potato fries instead of regular fries, brown for whole grain bun instead of a white bun, and pink for lean meat like turkey instead of a red meat.
3) Get them involved. In 2005 the USDA moved away from the traditional food pyramid and towards “Choose my plate”. The new format focuses on dividing up the plate into necessary components: dairy, protein, grains, fruits, and vegetables. You can engage kids by printing out plate templates and having them fill in the foods that go into each category, and then replicating it on their dinner plate.
4) Just don’t buy it! If the choice is between a bag of chips or carrot sticks, 99.99% of the time, your picky eater will choose the chips. So why have that option in the pantry? Keep a full stock of healthy snacks; cut up veggies and fruit, cheese with whole grain crackers, peanut butter and celery, and many more. On the same note, avoid sugary drinks; stock up on water and experiment flavoring it with cucumbers, mint, and lemons.
5) Don’t force it. Growing up, my parents imposed the “if it’s on your plate, you have to finish it” rule. This rule forces kids to eat beyond their capacity- resulting in over eating. If you’re worried that your child is not eating enough at meal times, make healthy snacks easily accessible. It is better for kids to snack on healthy foods than be forced to eat beyond their capacity in one sitting. Give picky eaters the responsibility to decide when they’re full and when to snack – they will be more likely to continue to make healthier choices.
6) Flexetarian. So your kid does not like meat- outside of hotdogs and burgers. It’s not the end of the world, I promise! There are plenty of protein alternatives. If your picky eater likes eggs – then there a world of recipes, from simple fried eggs to delicious omelets. If eggs are on the no-go list, try Greek yogurt, cheeses, avocados, cottage cheese, tofu, peanut butter, almonds, or milk. Be flexible- kids change their tastes randomly; one day they may hate chicken and the next day it may be all they want to eat. Stock up on a variety of protein options so your picky eater can be a flexetarian and still get the protein he needs.
7) Celebrate! Praise your picky eater for every step in the right direction, even if that means taking one bite of peas, or trying the smallest piece of fish. Every step counts, and with positive praise, even the pickiest of eaters will slowly begin to eat healthy options.
8) Flip it around. Breakfast foods do not have to be eaten in the morning, just like dinner foods do not have to be eaten in the evening. Who doesn’t love pancakes for dinner? Try making meal time more fun. If your picky eater wants to eat pancakes topped with fruit for dinner, go for it! Try mixing it up and serving breakfast for dinner, and dinner for breakfast. The act of flipping meals will excite your picky eater and make her more likely to try new healthy foods and eat her meal.
9) Taste test. Make a day of exploring the kitchen with your little ones. Start by going to the grocery store with the kids and having them choose vegetables and fruits that excite them. Then at home, get creative! Cut up the fruits and vegetables into fun shapes, add toppings, and finally, do a taste test to help your kids discover new foods that may become their new favorites!
10) Let’s start with you! Kids pick up habits from the adults in their lives. If they see you pick around your greens, avoid fruits, or choose unhealthy snacks, they will do the same. In order for your kids to eat healthy, you must be the role model. So color up your meals, sneak in some greens, ditch the unhealthy snacks, and treat yourself within moderation!

This post was written by Rashi Bamzai, 4th year Medical Student at the University of Illinois at Chicago in Spring 2014. [edited by Susan Buchanan]

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