Mealtime shouldn’t be a battle. But in an effort to make sure little ones are getting a mix of fruits, veggies and other healthy foods, that’s what it often feels like for parents.
Despite their best intentions, many parents might be making things worse, according to local nutritionists.
“Try not to make too big of an issue around food, especially in front of child,” said Clinical Health Coach Joni Eisenhauer. “You don’t want to stress them out.”
Eisenhauer, a candidate for a Master’s of Science of Clinical Human Nutrition, works at PinnacleHealth Annville Family Medicine, Lebanon Valley Advanced Care Center. She said it’s understandable that mealtime can become a struggle when someone has a child who is a so-called picky eater.
“When you’re in it, you’re thinking about it at every meal,” she said. “I think we make it more complicated for ourselves.”
One unrealistic expectation parents often have is how much food a child needs to eat. Eisenhauer noted that children’s stomachs are pretty small, and they often are served more food than they want or need. She encourages parents to limit portion sizes, perhaps even to just one or two carrots or branches of broccoli.
“Their bellies are smaller than ours,” she said.
Sarah Glunz is the lead nutritionist for Giant Food Stores and Martin’s Food Markets. She also has her Master’s in Science, is a licensed dietitian nutritionist (LDN) and certified nutrition specialist (CNS).
“We have this fear that, ‘Oh my goodness my child’s not getting what they need,’” Glunz said. “Most children are far from malnourished.”
Glunz said she’s asked parents to write what their kids will eat, and then looked it over with them. Even if they have a limited palate, there’s usually nutritional value that the parents overlook. For instance, even a child who’s mostly eating cereal is probably eating fortified cereal and getting a lot of nutrients from that.
Although it’s a good idea for parents to try to get their children to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, it can take some work and persistence to figure out what those particular fruits and veggies will be.
“Be careful not to define your child’s likes and dislikes too quickly,” Glunz said. That’s something she sees often — a total write-off of a particular type of food just because a child didn’t like it when they tried it. “Be careful not to do that for your child.”
Research shows kids may need to try something seven-14 times before they may accept it, Eisenhauer said. She said that means parents should still offer a food to a child even if they’ve said they didn’t like it in the past. And, by all means, the rest of the family should continue eating that food.
Glunz said it’s helpful to try to isolate what it is a child doesn’t like about a food. It may be the taste. It may be the texture. It may be the temperature.
A child who doesn’t like raw carrots may really like cooked carrots. If they don’t like cut-up strawberries, try them with milk in a smoothie, or made in a jam. If you always steam broccoli, try it roasted in the oven instead.
“There are so many different ways to prepare fruits and vegetables,” Glunz said. She encouraged parents to persevere and try many different options before finally concluding that their child really doesn’t like a particular food.
And even then, Eisenhauer pointed out there are ways to “sneak” veggies into meals so children get the nutritional value without even knowing it. For instance, carrots pureed into pasta sauce don’t substantially change the color or texture. Same with cauliflower into mashed potatoes. Soups offer a lot of options for pureed veggies.
Sometimes it can be as simple as making the food fun. If your child loves macaroni and cheese, maybe try to get them interested in mac ‘n’ trees, using broccoli florets as trees.
“Any time that you can get them invested (is good),” Eisenhauer said. “Make it fun.”
Freeze bananas and dip them in chocolate — “You’re not losing that value of the banana by dipping it in chocolate,” she said.
Glunz cautioned parents not to let a child sit at the table for a few minutes and then say they’re done, just because they don’t want to eat. Invariably, that child will want food a little while later, and sometimes that means parents give them a snack, or even dessert. She said it’s important to set boundaries where children know what’s expected at mealtime.
“This is so much more about parenting than it is about nutrition,” she said.
Eisenhauer also warned against what is a familiar parent practice in some households — always offering a back-up food they know their children will eat. She said it’s not helpful to allow your child to always have an “opt out.” If they know they can refuse the family meal and eat chicken nuggets or pizza, then that’s what they’ll most likely do.
“If I could always eat cake, I would eat cake,” she said.
Glunz said it often helps to allow your child to be a part of the meal experience — let them pick the placemats or put out the silverware. A lot of younger children already accompany parents to the grocery store, so let them be involved in some of the food choices.
At the Linglestown Road Giant where she works, Glunz loves talking to families about nutrition. For a $20 consultation (available at the Linglestown Road, Camp Hill and Enola Giants), nutritionists can work with a family on a variety of issues and then the family receives a $20 Giant gift card in return.
“I’ve heard and seen it all,” Glunz said, noting that the nutritionists aren’t judging your food habits, just looking to help make them better or easier.
Eisenhauer said it can be easy for parents to forget that their children — and their taste buds — are still developing. She said children at ages 2 and 3 are still not really even used to all foods. Meat, for instance, can be tough to chew and swallow.
“They’re growing into their mouths, so to speak,” she said.
Kids can be unpredictable, too. Glunz’s son went through a two-week period when he didn’t like eggs. Then he did again. And when he was 1, he tried and loved raw onion. Glunz said even she had a hard time not laughing when he ate the onion, but she wanted to let him decide what to eat or not eat.
“They really are all so different,” Glunz said. “There is a way for each child to eat well and balanced.”
is a freelance writer who lives in Boiling Springs with her husband and two daughters.