Is Your Child A Picky Eater?
By Bhavana Arora, MD, Medical Director, CHLA Health Network
Have you ever chased your toddler around with a spoon, flying it like an airplane, hoping to land one morsel of food in the child’s mouth? If so, your child might be a picky eater. Picky eaters respond to a limited range of foods, refuse nutritional foods like vegetables, and sometimes won’t eat at all. This can make mealtime stressful and cause parents anxiety about their child’s health and nutritional well-being.
Neville Anderson, MD, a CHLA Health Network pediatrician, estimates that at least one checkup in each of her patient’s lives will center around parents’ concern for their child’s weight gain, nutritional intake and ability to develop a healthy relationship with food. One panicked mom actually carried bowls of strawberries and blueberries into Anderson’s Larchmont Pediatrics practice to prove that her 2-year-old wouldn’t eat. But despite the fact that it worries parents, picky eating rarely results in significant weight loss or a serious medical condition.
Another CHLA Health Network pediatrician, Tanya Remer Altmann, MD, FAAP, of Calabasas Pediatric Wellness Center and best-selling author of “What to Feed Your Baby,” says the picky-eating stage is actually a normal part of development for children as they assert their independence, usually around preschool age.
Both doctors suggest parents avoid power struggles around food. Instead, they recommend making healthy foods available to your kids and allowing them choose what they want to eat. “While you can’t force a child to eat, just like you can’t force them to go to sleep or use the potty, you can continue to serve them those same healthy food options,” which is better than giving in to the less healthy options, Altmann says.
If your child shuns healthy eating from the start, try not to panic. With repetition and creativity, it’s possible to solve the problem. While it may take a 3-year-old longer to embrace nutritional foods than it does an 8-month-old, both Altmann and Anderson encourage parents not to give up. “Continue to offer veggies whether they eat them or not. It may not register for them until later, but you’re instilling healthy eating habits,” says Altmann.
I suggest parents hide pureed veggies in foods their child enjoys, like mac ‘n’ cheese or spaghetti, while simultaneously serving the actual vegetable, cauliflower or broccoli. This way the child’s palate is exposed to the vegetable’s taste (and gets the nutritional value) while exploring it with their other senses, too.
- Plan weekly meals to ensure you’re making focused decisions about your child’s diet. Offer veggie options consistently and serve healthy foods for snacks.
- Keep a log of what your children will eat and serve them similar foods. Make nutritious substitutions, like whole-wheat bread for white bread, or almond butter in place of peanut butter.
- Take your kids grocery shopping and discuss the foods they select—the colors, the textures, the smells. At home, allow them to help with safe and age-appropriate food preparation.
- Turn off the screens and turn mealtime into a fun, family activity with games (“I Spy”) and conversation.
- When your children are old enough, teach them how to understand food labels and ingredients.
If you have concerns about your child’s eating habits, don’t hesitate to contact your CHLA Health Network pediatrician to discuss and rule out the possibility of a potential disorder or illness. Remember, we’re here to help with your child’s overall care, which includes the big role nutrition plays.