My 4-year-old is driving me bananas. Every morning we wake up to the same thing: He's grumpy, yet won't eat more than a couple of bites of anything I put in front of him. Within half an hour, he's throwing tantrums and beating up his brothers. I know why — his poor little brain is running on empty — yet I can't get him to eat anything that's not full of processed sugar. I'm determined to be more stubborn than he is on this matter, because I refuse to create bad habits. But will my picky eater starve if he continues to not eat anything on his plate? I'm willing to make a ton of compromises, but they only rarely work. Is my son going to waste away before my eyes? Someone give me some consolation here.
Luckily, nutritionist Ilyse Schapiro has my back. "Typically kids will not starve themselves, and even if he's not getting all the right nutrients, kids tend to get enough of the calories they need in a day to grow," she tells Romper. "If your child isn't consuming the right nutrients, your pediatrician or dietitian may suggest a supplement or multivitamin. It is normal for kids to be picky, but the key is to not give into it that much because you want them to outgrow it."
So what strategies do nutritionists keep up their sleeves for picky eaters like my son? According to Schapiro, parents shouldn't force a child to eat a new food, but neither should they only prepare her favorite foods, either. The nutritionist says that parents should cook foods that the entire family will be eating, letting the child approach and eat them gradually. And while the meal should never revolve around only what you know your kid will eat, its a good idea to have one item on the menu that he has deemed "acceptable" so that you can be sure he will at least eat something.
Perhaps the most challenging piece of advice to follow? "Don't fight with your child about food rejection," urges Schapiro. "This makes the child uncomfortable at meal times and less prone to enjoy food. Keep meal times as calm and pleasant as possible. Keep the conversation positive and try to relax about your child's eating."
Schapiro understands how exhausting it can be to parent a picky eater, but she encourages moms and dads not to give up. The best way to boost morale, she says, is to change things up every once in awhile: Consider eating on party plates with a favorite character displayed, having an outdoor picnic, or cutting a sandwich up into playful shapes with a cookie cutter. A bit of whimsy goes a long way.
Schapiro also recommends encouraging children to get involved in the kitchen; being included in the lively dinner prep might entice a picky eater to try a new dish that night. Remember that food and community go hand-in-hand, so showing your child that eating together is a fun experience will go a long way for the positive correlation in his brain.
On that note, Schapiro says one of the worst things you can do is isolate your picky eater as punishment — yes, even if she is disruptive or messy. Remember that children learn by example, so exposing them to the delight that you and other family members derive from new foods will gradually convince them that the experience is not inherently negative.
As I prepare dinner tonight with Schapiro's advice ringing in my ears, I'm determined to parent my son through this stage in a better way from now on. Because he'll only be a picky eater for a few years, but his memories of family dinners will last forever.