Cold sashimi, steamed broccoli and a side of brown rice with a hint of MSG-free soy sauce. No, it’s not a power lunch with your dressed-to-the-nines, fabulous, best friend. In fact, it’s what super-fabulous best friend’s 5-year-old is eating for lunch, while your picky eater is still chanting “Viva la chicken nuggets” at age 9. So what gives?
A picky phase may seem like a rite of passage, but growing food allergy awareness has many parents concerned there could be more to the story than just neophobia, or the fear of new foods. We talked to nutritionist and food allergy specialist Lacy Elrod Wright about how to decode persnickety palates and expand junior taste buds. Here are her top suggestions to the most common complaints from parents of picky eaters.
PROBLEM: My child is a sugar fiend. Help!
EXPERT OPINION: Gummies, chocolate, sweet juices and cookies seem to be what your child lives for. According to Wright, it isn’t unusual for children to forgo heartier fare in favor of sugar, seeming to crave it all the time.
“Children have an instinctive aversion to bitter and sour tastes and a preference for sweet tastes that is ingrained in them. Scientists believe this is a protection mechanism that prevents children from consuming poisonous plants and berries,” says Wright.
Craving sugar is a natural metabolic response. Instead of giving in to the cookie craze or reaching for sugary snacks, expose your child to naturally sweet offerings like ripe mango or cantaloupe. To get an extra serving of protein, try freezing tubes of Greek yogurt for a popsicle-like treat with enough sweetness to curb the craving.
PROBLEM: I’m worried that my child’s picky eating might actually be a food allergy. Help!
EXPERT OPINION: The surge in gluten-free diets and other allergy-based restrictions has left a diagnosis gray area in its wake. However, don’t let the popularity of diets deter you from assessing negative patterns in your child’s aversion to certain foods or groups of foods.
“Picky eating could be a clue that your child is suffering from a food allergy or sensitivity. If you notice your child having other symptoms such as stomach upset, diarrhea or anxiety with meals, or your intuition tells you that something more is going on, have it checked out,” urges Wright.
Particularly for younger children, pay close attention to any fluctuations in weight, as they could be a tip that there’s a medical side to the issue.
“If your child is losing weight or becomes more picky about what they are eating, speak with your pediatrician to not only rule out abnormal causes, but to also make sure the child is getting the proper nutrients to thrive,” notes Wright.
PROBLEM: My child rotates between chicken nuggets, PB&J, and mac & cheese. Help!
EXPERT OPINION: If you find your child fixating on the same foods (particularly if they are not the healthiest options), it is time to actively expand her palate. The good news: it’s not as hard as it seems. The challenge is that it will require active participation from Mom and Dad.
“I have found that parents who serve their children the same foods that they are eating for a meal are much more successful at creating expanded palates. Avoiding the ‘kid food’ mentality is very helpful,” encourages Wright.
At dinner, everyone should eat the same meal to encourage kids to see mealtime as a shared experience and enjoy new things in the company of family and friends. Move away from chicken nuggets and serve baked chicken cut into bite size pieces, baked potatoes and a vegetable offering—that’s a kid-friendly meal without “kid food”.
If all else fails, try Wright’s top 10 tips to make meal time less stressful for everyone:
- Involve your kids in food preparation, including choosing foods at the grocery and cooking them at home.
- Cook healthy foods differently to find the best fit for your crew. For example, trying steaming, roasting, seasoning or serving raw.
- Add new food to old favorites. For example, toss zucchini into spaghetti or broccoli into macaroni and cheese.
- Don’t take it personally if your child rejects food. Just relax and try again another time.
- Expose your child to a food 10 to 15 times. It takes time to develop a taste for new foods.
- Don’t become a short order cook. Serve your child what you eat.
- Turn off the TV and eat meals at the table.
- Avoid grazing or snacking throughout the day to ensure your child has an appetite at mealtime.
- Don’t reward or bribe with food because this adds an emotional component to food.
- Plan meals ahead of time to ensure healthy foods make it into the line-up.
RELATED: Keys to Good Nutrition
Has all this food talk whet your appetite? Check out some of our favorite child nutrition resources selected by Wright:
- Karen le Billon, author of “French Kids Eat Everything”
Lacy Wright, RD, LDN, CLT, is a registered dietitian and certified LEAP therapist. She runs her own private practice specializing in the gluten-free diet with an emphasis on integrative health and wellness.