If you have kids, you know about food quirks—those idiosyncrasies that crop up from the time they start eating solids. Whether your peanut-butter eater won’t touch tuna, your toddler says no to anything new, or your preschooler abandoned tofu burgers once she sampled fast food, our nutrition experts provide solutions to get your child on a healthy track.
Food quirk > Refuses new foods
The scene > You’re eating at Aunt Liz’s house when your toddler decides the chicken looks yucky and won’t eat it.
Expert’s take > “Food neophobia [fear of novel foods] can hit around age 2 or 3,” says Atlanta-based Joan Carter, RD, a former spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. Aunt Liz’s sauce-smothered Chicken Parmesan looks nothing like the plain roasted chicken your child eats at home, so he’ll have nothing to do with it. “If you think back to the hunting and gathering times of human evolution, it’s good that little children don’t put foods in their mouth that they haven’t seen before, like poisonous berries,” says Carter. But these die-hard refusals can drive parents crazy.
To avoid neophobia from the get-go, offer babies plenty of food variety, including unusual picks like puréed beets and kiwi. When your child starts on table foods, mash or chop a little of whatever you’re eating and offer it. (Avoid honey before age 1, as well as choking hazards such as nuts or grapes.) Exposing kids early to different tastes will inspire more sampling later.
If you’re already in the throes of new-food phobia, keep trying. Researchers found that children who were repeatedly offered unfamiliar or disliked foods increased their acceptance of them (International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders, 2004, vol. 28, no. 7). Present a new item dozens of times and encourage your child to try it. Don’t make a big deal if she refuses; just continue to provide a wide selection.
Food quirk > Eats the same thing every day
The scene > At meals, your child’s taste rotates among only three items: pizza, PB&J, and cereal.
Expert’s take > “Certainly this can interfere with nutrition if a child’s choices are so limited that [he doesn’t eat from] entire food groups for extended periods of time,” says Heidi McIndoo, RD, LDN, a nutrition consultant in Framingham, Massachusetts. Fortunately, kids can survive this in short jags, say, one or two weeks.
The key is to keep loads of healthy foods in the house, so no matter what’s eaten, it’s a nutritional win-win. “It’s the parents’ responsibility to decide what’s available to eat and when,” says Carter. “It’s the children’s responsibility to decide what they’re putting in their mouths and how much.” Remember, you’re the model: A new study shows that mothers who eat lots of fruits and vegetables have daughters who are less likely to be picky eaters (Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2005, vol. 105, no. 4). Try pairing non-A-list foods with favorites to encourage branching out, and don’t provide snacks between meals.
Still concerned? Keep a food diary of what your child eats for a few weeks; she may be getting more variety than you thought. If you’re worried that she’s missing out on essential nutrients, ask your pediatrician about supplements, or get a recommendation for a nutritionist.
Food quirk > Tried junk food and now won’t eat healthier choices
The scene > At a birthday party, your preschooler sampled a fast-food burger, fries, and soda. Now he wants nothing else.
Expert’s take > “This is a great opportunity to teach how foods that aren’t as healthy can fit into a healthy diet once in a while,” says McIndoo. Explain that such foods are treats for parties or special occasions; all other times, nutritious foods are the norm. “Learning how to eat [less-healthy items] without guilt and in moderation is part of teaching your child about appropriate foods and health,” says Carter.
Try not to make treats or junk food a big deal. If you establish a negative attitude or declare an all-out fast-food ban, you could be setting the stage for future eating disorders or weight problems. Instead, set guidelines about how many treat foods your child can have and when: parties, holidays, or birthdays, for example.
Have happy meals
Whether your kid is a classic neophobe, a finicky eater, or beguiled by junk food’s addictive taste, keep meal times calm and food battles to a minimum. And take heart: These stages are often fleeting. Taste buds change, and before you know it, your child will have moved on to other, less important fixations—like whether his peas are touching his applesauce or how she hates anything mushy.