Negotiating with Picky Eaters

Have picky eaters on your hands? Getting them to try new foods takes some careful negotiation and creativity.
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Young boy applies Hand Over Mouth technique to avoid lunch

When you're a parent, the day often (read: always) involves multiple negotiations. Long-sleeve pink shirt versus new purple shirt: You push for the warm pink one, while she begs for the sparkly purple number. Brushing teeth versus just using mouthwash: You try to give a lesson in dental hygiene, while he sees how far he can stand from the sink and spit. Later you navigate the playground slide. You try to settle the debate over who is first in line for the slide and then explain why four at a time is a bad idea. Sometimes we feel like we are running a company boardroom, mediating and arbitrating deals instead of preschool playdates.

Some of the previously mentioned challenges can feel like child's play (pun intended) compared with the daily fights over ... food. This is especially true with the "picky eater" child. Early on in our kids' lives we learn that food is so much more than what is (left) on the plate. Food is love. Food is protective. Food is family values. When our kids don’t eat, we take it personally, and it hurts. We have all felt the stress of the stubborn "NO." We worry that our kids will not grow strong and healthy without eating right. So we need to stack our portfolios, polish our skills and become high-chairman of the family cutting board.

So, what can we do when our children are picky eaters? I had a client who came to me desperate and exhausted because her daughter would not taste the rainbow. She loved her carbs, but despite endless pleas she would not even so much as glance at a vegetable. Demonstrations of growing big and strong were not convincing. This mama's patience was wearing thin, and she needed help.

Instead of telling her to ditch the veggies altogether (her throw-her-hands-in-the-air idea), I told her to keep trying, but to offer the vegetables without any chatter. None. "Just do it, no discussion needed," I advised. "Serve those veggies every night even if they are ignored entirely and not even given a dirty look." Night after night different vegetables were put on the family table. The child would sit defiantly eating only her pasta and perhaps a little protein. Colorful roasted carrots, itsy-bitsy broccoli trees, and summer tomato salsa did not tempt her. But there was no discussion around it. One busy night the then 5-year-old sat down to a plate of chicken and rice. Without skipping a beat she asked, "Where are my vegetables, Mommy?" Victory. It may take years for her to try new foods, but at least she "got it": Meals include vegetables. I would put a whole lot of money on this child going off to college and being a veggie eater.

So have faith: Most kids will outgrow their crazy preference for ketchup-covered bread. But in the meantime, we have to do our best to get them digging in. Here are some tips to get your kids to try new things:

Present, don’t preach.

Always present a variety of foods on your table. How will the kids love healthy foods if they aren’t used to seeing them? And, by the way, no need to call them healthy or chat about their benefits either. You’ll have no need for labels and titles when nutritious food is the norm. The majority of picky kids are usually this way because they are looking for control and attention. Do not foster this. Even if kale or beans gets "yucked" at, your kids will grow used to them, I promise. It may take years for them to become salmon and salad fanatics, but they will grow up to have an understanding of what a well-balanced meal looks like. Encourage lightly; do not force or reward. Don't discuss that something is healthy and don’t discuss that something else is not. We don’t discuss how important a shower is, do we? We just do it and teach self-care by our actions. When your kids are off on their own in what seems like the far, far future, they will know how to make smart choices.

Incorporate, don’t hide.

Have you tried sweet potato pancakes to sneak in some vitamins? Keep folding in those yams, but no need to think about it as hiding them. This should just simply be the way you cook. Sweet potato in pancakes, avocado in smoothies and spinach in cookies — it can all be the norm. But keep offering your kids the real deal too, even if they gobble up those delicious flapjacks. Your young one might be shooing away the plain Greek yogurt with one hand while dunking apple slices into peanut butter-Greek yogurt dip with the other. Textures and flavors of the real-deal foods themselves are still important to present.

Food jags are OK.

It gets pretty frustrating, not to mention boring, when your child will eat only one thing over and over and over again. How many times can she actually eat those cheese sandwiches? Will he turn blue from all those blueberries? Do not harp on it 24/7 or make it dinner convo every night. If you do not give too much attention to the issue, they will get over it. Kids come to the realization on their own that foods other than white ones exist, as long as you continue to present without preaching. At some point enough is enough, even for the most-resistant eaters.

Get the kiddies involved.

We know that kids are more likely to try foods when they are involved in the process. We might not always have time for this, but on the weekends, when you may have a little bit more time, have them tag along to the grocery store or farmers market. Let them choose a couple of healthy new options. Then prep and cook them together (safely, of course) at home. During the week, have them choose seeds and nuts to mix for a snack, or pick toppings together for the whole-wheat pizza. The ownership will make them feel proud and want to eat their yummy creations. The benefit is twofold: They will be more likely to try a new healthy food now, and you are teaching them how to be self-sufficient for the future. Adults actually come to my office not knowing how to boil an egg. We need to teach these skills, just as we teach kids how to brush their hair.

A couple more things to remember: Presentation matters, and you need to bring out your creative side. Soggy, brown green beans have never made, and will never make, anyone want to chow down. If there are certain foods your kids love, spice them up. Even a slight twist to the safety chicken dish may be all you need to introduce a new flavor and dish.

Your chicken-finger-loyal kids may even give these tasty fish sticks a try. I dare you to give this a whirl tonight.

Oven-Baked Almond Fish Sticks
Total Time: 30 minutes
Prep: 15 minutes
Cook: 10-15 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1 pound cod fillets
1 cup almonds, crushed
1/2 cup bran flakes cereal, crushed
1 tablespoon wheat germ
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper powder
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 eggs
2 teaspoons olive oil

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Rinse the fish fillets and cut them into 1-inch-by-5-inch pieces. Mix the almonds, cereal, wheat germ, garlic powder, cayenne pepper, oregano and sea salt together in a medium-size bowl. Crack the two eggs in a separate bowl and beat until frothy. Dip the fish sticks into the eggs, and then dip into and coat in almond mixture.

Coat a baking pan with olive oil. Place fish sticks in pan and bake for 10 to 15 minutes.

Serve the finished fish sticks with your favorite marinara sauce as a delicious dip.

Keri Glassman is the founder and president of Keri Glassman, Nutritious Life and The Nutrition School. She is a contributing editor and advisory board member for Women’s Health Magazine, the Health and Wellness partner for JW Marriott, was Lead Nutritionist for Turner’s health and wellness entertainment brand, upwave and the Nutritionist and Judge on the healthy cooking competition show, “Cook Your Ass Off”. She has authored four books and is regularly featured on The Today Show, Good Morning America, and Access Hollywood Live.

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