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How to handle picky eaters

Picky eaters are a challenge for many parents. As a physician assistant at Vancouver Clinic–Ridgefield, I frequently counsel families who are struggling to get their kids to eat balanced meals. I also have two little munchkins of my own who have strong opinions about food. There’s no single, simple solution for handling fussy diners, but I’ve found that a few things can help:

Expose babies to a variety of foods

Research indicates that early exposure to wholesome food options makes it more likely that kids will enjoy a large range of flavors as they get older. Try to offer young ones many age-appropriate textures, consistencies, and tastes to explore.

Introduce new foods again—and again

Parents may need to introduce foods 10 to 12 times before children become accustomed to them. Talk about new foods, let kids touch them, include kids in preparing meals, and encourage kids to try a nibble. Make the foods available, but avoid pressuring kids to consume them.

Let kids gauge their own hunger

Oftentimes children will refuse foods because they aren’t hungry, not because they don’t like them. Healthy children will eat as much as they need and leave the rest.

Allow personal opinions

Kids have likes and dislikes, just as adults do. I have a 5-year-old who refuses to eat oranges and watermelon. He likes yellow baby tomatoes but not the red ones. While I can’t always accommodate his preferences, I can be understanding and avoid turning specific foods into a battle.

Set healthy boundaries

In my home, we generally have a vegetable, fruit, whole grain, fat, and protein with every meal. My husband and I make our kids’ plates and determine the portions for each item. The kids must eat their vegetables prior to getting seconds of anything else. Kids who are truly hungry will eat their mushrooms.

Schedule meal times

My kids are offered breakfast, lunch, dinner, and two snacks. This prevents them from grazing all day long on unhealthy foods. It also lets them get hungry, which is a good thing! Hungry children are more likely to choose salads and other healthy options. What’s more, it teaches kids to eat because they need to, not because they’re bored.

Limit milk

Milk is a great source of calcium, fat, and protein, but it is pretty filling. I actually give my kids milk after their meals. They are offered three cups a day and no more. Consuming over 30 ounces of milk in a day tends to decrease solid food consumption, which increases the risk of anemia.

Shop and cook together

Getting older kids involved in meal planning and preparation is a great way to encourage healthy eating. Kids who are invested in cooking foods are more likely to eat them. Planting and growing a small garden and going berry picking are other ways to get kids excited about eating vegetables and fruits.

Finally, remember that teaching kids healthy eating habits is a process. Some meals will go better than others. Some days will be filled with more graham crackers than others. The goal isn’t perfection, it’s to keep working toward a healthy future.

Amy Ossian is a physician assistant at Vancouver Clinic–Ridgefield. She enjoys helping individuals of all ages live healthy and productive lives. Amy strives to treat all her patients with the kindness and thoroughness she would give a family member.