Food builds growing bodies, and parents are keenly aware of the importance of adequate nutrition for their kids. Kids are not; however, so keenly aware of the importance of vegetables, protein, calcium, and whole grains. Picky eaters are common. Public health nutritionist, Pam Estes, has found that as children are becoming more aware of their environment they become more apt to notice new sights, smells, and textures of foods. Those new senses inspire a bit of natural fear of new foods.
Grazing: Good or Bad?
In an effort to increase childhood nutrition and to combat the pitfalls of picky eating, the Mayo Clinic advises against random grazing, because juices and empty calorie-snacks fill up toddler tummies before meal time. The Mayo clinic also suggests tackling picky eaters by eating at specific times of the day; however, not all parents have strict schedules that they can follow. The solution to a picky eater’s nutrition may not be to force specific feeding times.
Some cut grapes here, a few unsweetened whole grain cereal rings there, and a few stringy cheeses there equate to a decent start to a well fed toddler. They key isn’t so much to try to force a schedule that you and your toddler may find difficult to keep. The key to insuring your picky eater is eating well is to really watch what he is eating and to ensure the food fills his nutritional needs. It’s quite alright if your toddler did not want breakfast but seemed eager for a boiled egg and some apple slices in the late morning.
Obviously, if he’s been munching on healthy snacks all day, he probably will not want a meal. If you want him to sit and eat a full meal, you will have to find lighter snacks to give him throughout the day. Rest assured, though, if between library time and the park, you’ve given your toddler nothing but healthy snacks that fill a rainbow of nutritional needs but find that your toddler will not settle for a late lunch, he’s probably had an adequate amount of nutritious food. In short, it’s okay for your toddler to graze sometimes so long as you are providing healthy snacks.
Think Outside the Lunchbox
I had to ditch the lunchbox with my daughter. My daughter has always been unusually picky due to some sensory issues. I wasted food for daycare and Kindergarten, because she refused to eat the sandwich. I tried separating the bread from the fillers to reduce the sog-factor of the bread, but she still came home from her school with an empty stomach and an unpleasantly full lunch box. She didn’t like veggies, so lettuce and tomato were always impossible sandwich items. She gagged at the idea of fruit cups. She loved nuts, though. She loved berries. She was always into cheese, boiled eggs, yogurt and bits of food.
I learned pretty quickly (or maybe out of desperation) that conventional lunch-box items did not work for my picky eater. I found that packing a little party supply of finger foods such as whole grain crackers, sliced cheeses, cashews, and berries worked brilliantly to give her a decent dose of nutrition during her lunches. I’d sometimes pack boiled eggs, corn or peas (the only two veggies she’d look at), apple slices, cheese bits and whole grain crackers. Eventually, I learned about Bentos, sort of compartmentalized, beautifully displayed little boxes of food, and I attempted to make her meals pretty like them. She looked forward to her lunches. Good nutrition does not always need to come from a standardized three-item lunch-box.
Toddlers need food from the following basic categories, according to Kidshealth.org: grains, vegetables, fruits, milk, and meat and beans. So if you build your out-of-the-box lunch for your picky eater, add the proper components from each nutritional category in your child’s meal without worrying about whether it seems like a “normal” meal.
Be a Wimpy Parent, a Little
Grandma or Grandpa may have told you not to let your child leave the table until she has eaten all of her veggies, but you do not have to do that. Of course, if your little picky eater is clamoring for some kind of treat, you should probably ensure he or she has had adequate nutrition before delighting in something sweet (and desserts really shouldn’t be a regular bribe nor a daily habit). That said, if she’s tried it and looks to be gagging, it’s not likely a display of dramatics. Your toddler probably hates the taste. That’s okay. The fact that your toddler had the food in his mouth is a pretty good start. Some studies have found that regular exposure (not necessarily complete ingestion) to foods toddlers find icky may improve the toddlers’ taste for it over time.
But you don’t want your child to associate eating new foods with trauma. If the toddler learns quickly that you are perfectly okay with him not eating something that he really despises, he may be more open to trying new looking foods–especially if they taste good. So it’s okay if your toddler spits out the green bean and you tell him, “That’s okay. Good job for trying it! I won’t make you eat those.” You’re really not a wimpy parent if you do that. You have a plan, and your plan should be to expose your child to as many different flavors and textures of food as you can.
Relax and allow your child to enjoy food. Spend time exploring new foods with your child with an optimistic, positive and encouraging attitude. If you love the food and can’t wait for your little one to try it, she just might get excited about eating it too. Don’t be disappointed if she takes a bite and goes, “Iew, yuck.” Acknowledge her feelings and swap it out for something else that she likes that is also nutritious. Try to make it a different way and offer it to her again another week with the understanding that you think she’ll love it and you just want her to give it a little taste.
You don’t have to follow the conventional rules for food. If you end up grazing because of your schedule, just ensure that the grazed foods fill your child’s nutritional needs. Conventional lunches wax all-American and apple pie, and many parents look forward to sending their wee ones off to school with the quintessential sandwich, fruit, and juice box, but nutrition comes in different styles and forms. Experiment with meatless meals while satisfying protein and calcium from different sources of foods if your toddler won’t even lick a slice of turkey. Focus on nutrition, not conventional food styles, and you and your child will find eating nutritious foods to be an enjoyable experience.