Solutions for Picky Eaters at Every Stage: A Q&A with Expert Dina Rose
The dos and don'ts for feeding babies, toddlers and preschoolers
When it comes to feeding picky eaters, Dina Rose, Ph.D., literally wrote a book on it. It’s Not About the Broccoli isn’t a cookbook, it’s full of smart strategies for feeding kids successfully, for ending stressful mealtimes and teaching kids to enjoy healthy foods for the rest of their lives. If this sounds daunting, take heart. You’re not alone. Here are some tips to get you started.
What’s the best thing parents of babies can do to raise healthy eaters from the start?
Remember that taste preferences are formed more than they’re found. So focus on taste development from the get-go. Don’t worry about starting babies off with the introduce-one-food-and-wait-three-days approach. That’s oriented toward allergy identification (not prevention). But even if the go-slow approach did prevent allergies, consider this: Fewer than 5 percent of babies under 5 have food allergies, the foods that babies typically start with (fruits, vegetables and single grains) are the least likely to cause an allergic reaction, and new recommendations from the American Academy of Asthma, Allergy and Immunology explicitly state that parents should not wait to introduce potentially allergenic foods because this might increase, not decrease, the likelihood of an allergic reaction.
What’s a common trap that new parents fall into when feeding beginning eaters?
It’s incredibly easy for parents to disrupt the link between eating and their babies’ internal hunger and fullness cues. This is the first way well-meaning parents inadvertently teach their children to overeat. Never ask your baby or toddler to eat more than she wants. If you think she hasn’t eaten enough to get to the next snack or meal, move the next meal or snack up a little earlier. Help your child learn how to eat enough by allowing her to experience mild hunger during a structured no-eating time.
Many, if not most, parents struggle with even formerly “good eaters” at the toddler stage. If you could tell a frustrated parent one thing about getting through this stage, what would it be?
Don’t cater too much to your toddler’s demands. Allow choices where it’s reasonable, but feeding to your children’s demands will only narrow his eating even more. Structure meals and snacks to delineate clear times when there will be eating and there won’t be eating, and then keep up a good rotation through the foods your “good eater” ate. Don’t pressure your child to eat; let the structure do the work for you.
Where do many parents go wrong at the admittedly stressful toddler stage?
Thinking that “I don’t like it” means something important. Young children don’t have stable taste preferences. That’s why they can “like” something one minute and “not like” it the next. What children do know, however, is what they think they like, or what they have decided they’ll eat. Children say they don’t like something because it’s a surefire way to get out of eating something they don’t want to eat at that moment. Parents inadvertently teach kids this by saying, “Just taste it and if you don’t like it you don’t have to eat it.” Next time you want your child to taste something, just say, “Taste it and tell me what you think. Is it salty? Sweet? Crunchy?” Finally, separate “tasting” from “eating.” Expecting your child to eat something he has never tasted makes the situation too pressure-filled.
By preschool, some kids have started to go backwards, regressing to eating only a handful of foods. What’s the first step toward reversing this trend?
The first step in widening what your child will eat is to implement what I call the Rotation Rule: Don’t serve the same food two days in a row for any meal or snack (except for milk). Use the foods your child already willingly eats. The reason the Rotation Rule works is because it sets an easy structure for how foods are chosen (otherwise the process seems like it’s up for grabs) and it produces a mind shift from expecting the same foods every day to expecting different foods every day. Different lays the foundation for new.
Then, when it comes to introducing new foods, don’t only introduce “healthy” and “boring” foods. Capture your child’s interest by introducing new “fun” foods–like cookies, crackers and ice cream–so your child associates tasting new foods with a positive experience. Remember, separate tasting from eating, be confident in the knowledge that if your child wants to eat what he’s just tasted, he’ll ask for more.
What’s a common approach that doesn’t usually work with preschoolers?
Getting nutrients into your kids isn’t the same thing as teaching healthy eating habits. When you feel like your job is to get nutrients into your kids it’s too easy to accept mediocre foods (like chicken nuggets, hog dogs, mac ‘n cheese because they have protein), which point your kids’ taste buds toward cookies, not carrots. It’s also too easy to get caught up using techniques that teach bad habits (like overeating–”just eat two more bites…”). On the other hand, when you focus on teaching proportion, variety and moderation, good nutrition comes along for the ride. Think big and your efforts will be rewarded!
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