Picky eaters: Parents set rules to instill healthy eating habits
By Pamela Knudson
GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Circling the island in the kitchen of their north Grand Forks home, the Englehart children climb onto stools, ready for supper.
The oldest, Hailey, 10, offers plates of lasagna with a crisp lettuce salad and a glass of milk on the side.
Six-year-old Owen is hesitant.
“You don’t like it?” said Reid, 9. “I love lasagna.”
“I love hamburgers,” said Owen, “with bacon on it.”
“Lasagna is my favorite,” said Cayden, 5, as he devours his meal.
Supper seems to be going rather well with her kids, but “all of them have their picky sides,” Cindy Englehart said.
Reid and Owen “are pretty good eaters, but they have their moments — usually when they’re not in the mood for a particular food,” she said. “They’re all picky about vegetables.”
Picky eating “is frustrating and puzzling for us as parents,” Englehart said.
Although Hailey likes foods made with ground beef — tacos, casseroles and meatballs — she will not touch a hamburger.
“That one floors me,” Englehart said.
Dealing with picky eating in children “can be really frustrating for parents because they want their kids to be healthy and eat a balanced diet, and then the kid refuses,” said Elizabeth Hilliard, coordinator of the dietician education program at North Dakota State University.
Parents “try to bribe or force them to eat it,” she said. “Mealtime becomes a battlefield, and that just makes things worse.”
“If the child really doesn’t want to eat something, just let it go,” she said. “But don’t give up; offer that food again later.”
“Kids’ food habits will change (although) it could take a long time. It takes some kids longer to get used to a new texture.
“It took one-and-a-half years before my daughter, who’s 5, would try quesadillas … Now, she loves them.”
Picky eating, which is “totally normal,” usually starts between ages 1 and 3, she said.
Children go on “food jags” for a couple of weeks or months, when they’re stuck on a specific food that they later lose interest in, she said.
“That’s totally normal, as well.”
Kids younger than 3 really like bread, cereal, fruit and milk, she said. In general, kids “are not as interested in vegetables and meat — but there are exceptions to that.”
Hailey was about 6 when she first refused a hamburger, Englehart said. She hasn’t eaten one since.
“She said she doesn’t like the way it feels in her mouth,” Englehart said.
“I’ve tried various ways to make them — adding different flavorings, toppings and buns. I’ve tried putting cheese or lettuce on it … It did not go well. She would not take a bite.”
Englehart and her husband, Chad, are not picky eaters, she said. They try to make healthy meals by including fruit, vegetables, meat or pasta, and milk.
She and Chad have established rules to encourage healthy eating habits and to avoid becoming short-order cooks, accommodating each child’s whim at mealtime, although at times, the kids “may choose from leftovers so at least they have another choice,” she said.
During meals “they have to at least try one bite because you don’t know how it tastes if you don’t try it,” she said. “We praise them for trying (new foods), even one bite.”
The children “must finish their milk and at least try their vegetables and fruit,” she said. Having rules like these “lets them know how important it is to get your nutrients.”
The couple is reluctant to use dessert as a reward, she said. “We don’t have dessert with every meal.”
Unfinished meals may result in less time on the computer or with their friends, she said. “It’s hard to discipline with four kids. We try hard.”
Generally, Englehart and her husband do not “bribe” their kids to eat what’s on their plates, she said, although “any parent has probably been guilty” of it.
She admits that “if they really haven’t eaten, and I just want them to get the nutrients they need,” she has resorted to bribery, she said. “But bribing comes back to bite you (because later) they won’t eat what they should, and they feel the rules don’t matter.”
Parents who bribe “are giving power” to their kids, she said. “Parents should always be in control and make the right choices nutritionally.”
Englehart doesn’t believe the strict rules she grew up with are appropriate for her children, she said. “I was told, ‘you’re not leaving the table until you eat what’s on your plate,’” she said. “And you finally ate it ...
“I had a hard time with that. I remember forcing down peas with milk. I’m not able to eat peas to this day.”
Back then, nutrition education was “so scarce,” especially on portion control or proper serving sizes for kids, she said. “I remember having a pile of casserole or a big piece of lasagna and eating past full. That’s not a good thing.”
She prefers a different approach. “I still don’t believe in forcing a child to eat what’s on their plate. I don’t want them crying at the table.”
When faced with a belligerent eater, “any parent has probably been guilty” of bribing, offering some favor in order to persuade the child to eat something, she said.
She admits that “if they really haven’t eaten, and I just want them to get the nutrients they need,” she has resorted to bribery, she said.
“It’s the parents’ job to provide healthy foods for their children,” Hilliard said. They “should keep an eye on (picky eating) but not worry about it excessively.”
Most healthy kids are not going to “purposely go hungry,” they can hold out for a day or two, she said. “They will not starve themselves to the point of being sick.
“But if they do, there’s something else wrong that needs to be checked out.”
Parents should be concerned if there’s a “growth failure,” as evidenced by head circumference, height and weight, she said.
If a child has problems chewing or swallowing, or is gagging or coughing a lot, he or she should see a doctor, she said.
“If the child is vomiting or breaking out in a rash, that may be why the child is not wanting to eat. It may be a sign that something else is wrong.” If the child has unusual skin color or lethargy, seek medical advice, she said.
Parents should not rush to use supplemental dietary products, Hilliard said. “There’s a time and place for a supplement, but it should not be your first attempt to fix the problem” of picky eating. “It’s bad if you use it as a crutch too much. You’re sending a message that’s OK not to learn to eat a variety of foods.”
The Engleharts are teaching their kids healthy eating habits so, when they grow up, they won’t give in to unhealthy foods and a pattern of splurging that could lead to eating disorders or obesity, she said.
“If you do, you’ll have to learn the hard way how to control your weight,” she said. As an overweight person, “low self-esteem can affect you your whole life.”
Englehart and her husband want their kids to be open-minded, she said. By encouraging them to try different foods, “once they grow up, they’ll be more willing” to do the same.
“They’ll say, ‘I’m just going to try it.’”
Find more information online at www.MyPlate.gov for dietary recommendations.
Tips to encourage healthy eating habits in kids
Elizabeth Hilliard, coordinator of the dietician education program at North Dakota State University, offered these tips for parents:
Engage kids in food selection and preparation: “Let children help pick out items at the grocery store,” she said. “At home, let them wash the fruit or stir ingredients in the dish that Mom is preparing. If they’re involved, they’ll usually be more likely to try (the new food).”
Offer a variety of healthy foods at mealtime: “Let the child choose what they want within that diet of healthy foods,” she said. “If you’re making a new food that you’re not sure your child will like, balance it out with foods you know they like.
“Suggest they try just a bite (of the new food). That usually works with an older child; a younger child may not quite get it.
Avoid fixing something else: “If a child refuses mealtime foods, don’t offer to fix chicken fingers or pizza for them instead,” Hilliard said.
“Eventually, the child learns ‘I need to try some of these foods.’”
A child “is always looking for boundaries,” she said. “It’s part of growing independence and finding ways to control the world around them. Food is one thing they have a lot of control over — what they put in their mouths.”
Both parents should be healthy-eating role models: “Parents set the bar. Be consistent. Both need to be on board,” she said. “You can’t expect kids to do what you’re not willing to do.”
It’s not good for one person “to prepare all these healthy foods and the other one says, ‘Eeew, I won’t eat that.’”
Watch milk quantities: Limit mealtime servings of milk to four to six ounces, Hilliard said. “If the child drinks more than that, they fill up and won’t eat.”
A total of two cups of milk per day is recommended, according to USDA dietary guidelines, she said. After that, serve water which “has no calories but meets fluid needs.”