How To Overcome Mealtime Stalemates With Children

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You know the dinnertime drill: Your toddler or preschooler insists on eating crackers and peanut butter for dinner for the fourteenth consecutive evening. You'd think he would get tired of it; after all, he's had the same meal for lunch over the same two-week period.

As a parent who thrives on creating wholesome meals with organic foods, you're ready to tear your hair out. And if you happen to have teenagers, the power struggles over eating junk food can escalate to in-your-face kitchen combat.

Researchers feel your pain. They've lived it, and they've devoted years to studying why children refuse to eat like "normal people." Their first piece of advice? Relax! Next, understand the reasons why many children are, by nature, picky eaters who wouldn't go near an organic cauliflower if you offered to triple their allowance.

Research Revelations

Food-control issues usually begin when your baby morphs into a toddler, according to Julie Lumeng, MD, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Children become more receptive to trying new foods by age 4 or 5. If kids are still finicky by age 9, it's likely they'll be picking the lima beans out of your organic succotash well into early adolescence.

Many parents assume their picky eaters are simply being pigheaded and difficult, trying to score continuous victories at mealtime melees. But Dr. Lumeng and other experts now believe that picky eating is part of normal human evolution. Ten thousand years ago, they theorize, early man lived in areas brimming with ambrosial fruits and plant life, but parents instinctively dissuaded their children from picking their own food, fearing they would consume poisonous berries or leaves. This anthropological "hard-wiring" continues to this day.

Thankfully, attentive parents can fight back, introducing healthful organic foods to their children by staying calm and playing it smart. Start by being a role model for your child by eating well.

"Remember that children close their ears to advice, but open their eyes to example," says Susie Nanney, PhD, MPH, RD, manager of the Obesity Prevention Center at Saint Louis University in Missouri.

"Give a child the choice of french fries or steamed broccoli, and you can be pretty sure which one will go first," adds Marjorie Fitch-Hilgenberg, PhD, RD, an associate professor of nutrition at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. A steady diet of french fries creates a nutritional comfort zone for children, making them less likely to try new foods.

Offer a wide variety of organic foods at the dinner table. Instead of serving only one vegetable at dinnertime, make two or three dishes. It's extra work, but it will ultimately pay off, Dr. Lumeng notes. You must, however, be patient, as children may require 10 exposures to a specific food before they're willing to try it.

"The more exposure children have to a certain food, the more familiar it becomes to them, and the more they grow to like it," Dr. Lumeng says. "Also, don't be afraid to add a small amount of oil, butter, cheese or gravy to your child's vegetables if this makes them more tempting to the child."

Dr. Nanney offers additional suggestions:

  • Sneak chopped vegetables like carrots, squash and peppers into spaghetti sauce.
  • Substitute 100% fruit juice for carbonated beverages (even the organic kind).
  • Seize opportunities to educate your child about fresh fruits and vegetables-and make sure you buy them during peak season. Your child can then try them for the first time when produce is at its best. Dr. Nanney's top picks include asparagus in the spring, berries in the summer, apples in the fall and pears in the winter. Make a trip to the farmer's market a family outing.

Beware of Bribery!

Never bribe a child-say, offering ice cream for dessert if Junior eats his peas-to try a new food, Dr. Lumeng cautions.

"Studies have shown that rewarding your child for eating a particular food will actually lead to a greater dislike of that food over time," she says. "The key is not to reward your child for eating. A more positive use of food as an incentive would be rewarding them with healthier snacks like crackers-not desserts-for cleaning their room. Children learn to like the foods they receive in this way as a reward."

Also avoid becoming frustrated and yelling at your child.

"Parents need to remember that picky eating is a developmental phase for children and, like all phases, this too shall pass," Dr. Lumeng says. "As long as your doctor has told you that your child is getting all the appropriate nutrients and is growing and developing well, then it may not be worth all of the conflict and energy to try to change their habits."

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