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Your toddler routinely turns up her nose at dinner. Or your son refuses to eat anything green.
If food struggles like these are a constant, it may help to know that most kids go through a picky-eating phase, especially during their younger years. They may want to eat the same foods all the time or refuse to try something new.
"The biggest thing to remember is that picky eating is normal," says Mary Mullen, MS, RDN, LDN, a pediatric dietitian at Rush University Children's Hospital. "But you can work with a finicky eater to make sure they get a variety of foods and that mealtimes are more pleasant."
When babies are born, they're only drinking breast milk or formula, so their preference is for sweeter tastes, says Sheela Raikar, MD, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Rush University Children's Hospital.
"But as kids grow, solid foods are introduced into their diet, and that's when taste buds start to change," Raikar adds. "We're also constantly developing new tastes and preferences over time. So just because a child doesn't like a food when they're 3 doesn’t mean they won't like it when they’re 8. There are probably some foods you eat now that you didn't eat when you were a kid."
Picky eating is also how some children express their budding independence about everything, including food.
Kids are more likely to try healthy foods if they see their parents and siblings eating them too.
Gathering around the table can also help tune out the TV and other distractions that steal the spotlight from food. "Let your child embrace this whole process of enjoying meals as a family and hopefully trying different foods," Mullen says.
When you offer a new food, be positive. Talk about how delicious it tastes and smells.
"Your kids are listening and looking at your reaction," Mullen says. "If you push the food to the side of your plate, they're going to notice."
Children are more likely to try foods that they help prepare.
You don't have to start from scratch when encouraging kids to try a variety of foods.
For instance, if your child is all about macaroni, mix in vegetables with the noodles. Or if your child likes crunchy chicken tenders, try preparing veggies in a similar way. Coat green beans in breadcrumbs and roast the beans in the oven, for example.
Children are more likely to try foods that they help prepare. Ask them to wash the vegetables for dinner or the fruit for dessert. Or help them use a cookie cutter to make foods, like sandwiches, into fun shapes.
Children need healthy snacks just like everyone. But if they're always eating between meals, they may come to the table full — and less likely to try something new, Mullen says.
Forcing kids to try something can lead to power struggles and makes kids anxious about meals, Raikar says.
Instead, continue to offer a variety of foods from all the food groups. You may have to offer a food up to 20 times before your fussy eater will like it.
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