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My child is a picky eater: How should I respond as a parent?

By Shilpa Vernekar, M.D.

 Picky eating is a phase most children go through, peaking around 2 years of age, and then lessening around 3-4 years of age. Picky eating may also manifest as only liking a few food items, or some children may like one food today and reject the same food tomorrow. They may prefer certain food colors or textures, in liquids or solids.

 Most children generally prefer sweet or salty foods, and if parents allowed, would snack on them all day long. Nearly everyone has seen those funny commercials where the child is sneaking a cookie from the cookie jar or talks the babysitter into letting them eat ice cream when Mom and Dad are out for the evening.  Most parents encounter difficulties and may become frustrated, or worry if the child’s diet is meeting all of the daily nutritional needs.

 boy and cooked vegetables

So, what do I do if my child is a picky eater?

First do not panic. Like all phases this too shall pass.

Here are some suggestions to help your child overcome picky eating:

  • When a child is rejecting most foods, there is something that he/she will prefer to eat, such as bananas or sweeter fruits.
  • It is important to ensure that your child is hungry when you offer him food. Offering food when he is semi-full, not interested or playing will increase the chances of him rejecting the food.
  • Instead of giving him a juice bottle or his bottle of milk, try to offer the food that you want him to eat. If he doesn’t like it today, offer it again two days later. Change the texture- if you had initially served steamed broccoli, then cook it more or make it into a puree with seasoning and then offer it.
  • If he likes to dip his food items, let him dip his food, such as carrots and celery, into something healthy such as yogurt.
  • Feeding should be made stress free and should not be forced upon your child who is working hard to achieve his independence.
  • Involve him in preparing his food; there are more chances he will look forward to eating if he sees the food preparations.
  • If your child is not overweight or obese, you can make dishes more palatable by adding honey (after age 1)/butter at times or seasoning it with different spices.
  • Children sometimes are more open to eating if they see Mom, Dad, or other siblings eating the same food. But, never compare eating habits of one child with another.
  • Let the child eat his own food; that way he will determine when to stop when he feels full.
  • Do not force the child to completely clean his plate.
  • Try offering different types of food and let him make the choice.
  • There will be days that your child will eat more and some days it appears that he has had nothing. If your child is growing taller and gaining weight and does not seem tired or lethargic all the time, then he is mostly meeting his nutritional requirements.

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