3 in 5 families are short-order cooks for picky kids. Here’s what to do instead

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Each of Tara Marklin’s three sons have vastly different approaches to eating: The oldest eats the widest array, the middle likes vegetables but takes strong stances on other foods, and her 3-year-old wants to live off of oxygen and mac and cheese, she said.

With the added complications of after-school activities and work scheduling, it’s a serious effort to make sure her family can gather around the table and share a nutritious meal they will all enjoy, said Marklin, who lives in Chamblee, Georgia.

She makes one meal for everyone, but many people deal with the stress of dinnertime in a different way, according to a new survey.

If their children don’t like what everyone else is eating, 3 in 5 parents will make something else for them, according to data from the University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health.

“This is concerning because typically the alternative options are not as healthy as what is being offered as the family meal,” said Dr. Susan Woolford, Mott Poll co-director.

The survey reported on more than 1,000 parents of children ages 3 to 10—stages that are important for establishing healthy eating patterns, said Woolford, who is also a Mott pediatrician and associate professor specializing in childhood obesity prevention and treatment.

A replacement meal of chicken nuggets or pizza may be tempting to make sure your kids don’t go hungry, but there are better ways to feed children while giving them more nutrients, she said.

How to introduce foods to picky eaters

It’s natural for young children to be resistant to new and unfamiliar foods, but that doesn’t mean that you have to throw in the towel, Woolford said.

“Just because the child … appears not to like many vegetables, doesn’t mean that vegetables shouldn’t be incorporated into the meal,” she added. “This generally improves over time. It is a phase that ultimately will change.”

Experts estimate that it will take about 20 exposures before a child no longer minds a new food, Woolford added. This familiarization process means that you should keep encouraging them to try different foods — and don’t get discouraged when they make a face at it.

Familiarize your kids with new foods by engaging their senses, said Natalie Mokari, a dietitian in Charlotte, North Carolina. What does it smell like? What does it feel like? What color is it?

Then you can talk about the vitamins and minerals in the food and all the great things they can do for their body, she added.

While you might not want to make an entirely different meal, Mokari recommends having healthy backup options you know they like available after your children try something new.

The child decides

You can also make the more nutritious options more appealing by putting some control into the children’s hands, Woolford said.

“There is a philosophy that is recommended whereby parents should provide and then the child decides,” she said.

Maybe your kids tried the brussels sprouts and weren’t fans, but they love salad — so they can choose to have that instead, Woolford suggested.

It may also be helpful to involve your kids in choosing the vegetables in the grocery store and having them help prepare the meal, she said. That way, they can get excited about the food.

Let’s be done with clean plate club

If you had to sit at dinnertime as a kid staring at cold vegetables you refused to eat and couldn’t leave the table until you did, you know that doesn’t make them more appealing to eat.

While it’s important for your kids to try new foods, it’s also crucial not to force them to eat a lot of what they don’t like, Woolford said. That approach can really backfire.

Pushing food too hard can create a relationship with food in which vegetables are punishments and the more taboo foods become even more valuable, Mokari said.

And requiring an empty plate may teach kids to push past and start to ignore their hunger and fullness cues, Woolford said.

“One of the important things about nutrition is that we learn to listen to our cues our body gives us and that we know when we need to eat and when it’s time to stop,” she said.

What to do about dessert

Just as vegetables should not be a punishment, dessert should not be a reward — that kind of motivation often backfires, Woolford said.

“We’re setting up as sort of a negative cycle by which the child will prefer the desert foods and be less likely to like broccoli or vegetables that were meant to be eaten to get the reward,” she added.

And if kids know that dessert always follows dinner, they may learn to take the few bites of dinner they need to in order to fill up on the sweet treat instead, Mokari said.

She recommends not having dessert every night or attaching it to a behavior, but as an occasional offering. And instead of always having a sugary sweet after dinner, you could offer your kids a random dessert like a popsicle in the middle of the day, she added.

There are many strategies around eating, but with so many things to be stressed around when it comes to raising three boys, Marklin said she has learned to obsess less and do the best she can to keep her kids happy, nourished and fed.

“For me, it’s come down to trying to teach them to listen to their body and making sure that we’re feeding it some things that are going to provide their body with good energy,” she said, “They are growing, and they’re happy, and I find that they’re healthy. Their pediatrician thinks they’re healthy. I’m trying to pick my battles.”

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