Diversifying the plate of a picky eater

By Christa Melnyk Hines

Variety is the spice of life – unless you're a toddler demanding dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets and mac 'n cheese at every meal. Picky eating isn't uncommon among youngsters, but that doesn't make the issue any less frustrating for parents. What are some ways we can make healthy foods more attractive to a selective child?

Strike while the iron is hot. Tummies growling just before dinner? Set out a plate of fresh-cut fruits and vegetables with peanut butter, a low-fat dressing or yogurt-based dip for your hungry brood to munch on while you prep dinner.

Cook together. Kids can tear lettuce leaves, wash fruits and vegetables and stir ingredients. "When they're involved in the cooking process, they're often more likely to try what they've helped create," says registered dietitian Lynn Kistler.

Ta-da! Present food in playful ways. Cut sandwiches into stars with a cookie cutter. Offer "ants on a log" with celery, peanut butter and raisins. And, serve food on kid-sized plates and bowls featuring their favorite characters, suggests Dr. Joan Sechrist, RD.

Taste test. "Hey, what's that funny star-shaped fruit?" Take advantage of your child's natural curiosity. Explore the produce section at the grocery store. Talk about the origin of different foods and suggest that your child choose something for the family to try. "Make a game out of trying new foods,” Kistler says. "Focus more on the color, shape, feel, texture or smell of the new food rather than the taste."
Do as I say...and as I do. Introduce small bites of new foods with those that your kids like. When you dine out, invite them to try a bite of whatever you're eating. "If children witness their parents eating a varied, nutrient-dense diet in a genuine way – not because they're eating 'diet food' to lose weight – children will be more likely to follow through as well," says Crystal Witte, a registered dietitian and nutritionist.

Offer variety. Establish a meal and snack-time routine that integrates colorful fruits and vegetables. To curb food waste, "allow children to serve themselves. It gives them some control at meal time," Sechrist says.

Be patient. Taste buds evolve over time. "Instead of expecting your child to eat all of her broccoli, ask her to try just one bite. Over time, your child is more likely to develop a taste preference for that food. Repeated exposure is key," Witte says.

Shhh....don't tell. "As a last resort, you can sneak fruits and veggies into fun foods they like," Kistler says. Add chopped up peppers or broccoli to quesadillas. Puree veggies like cauliflower or squash into mac and cheese or spaghetti sauce.

Avoid power struggles. Experts agree: Kids shouldn't be forced to eat a food or clean their plates. "Keeping the dinner table a pleasant place will teach your child to associate eating with positive feelings," Kistler says.