Mazzy used to be a pretty good eater. She would eat a variety of healthy foods including avocado, tomatoes and broccoli. Chicken was a harder sell but with the right preparation (Chicken Tikka Masala from an Indian place on 6th Street), she'd humor us with a bite or two.
But as Mazzy has gotten older (she is a whooping 15 months now), she's started to notice all the tasty little snacks that Mike and I shove in our mouths between meals when we think she isn't looking. Pretzels, crackers, Twizzlers, chips and the mother of all things I cannot live without— ice cream.
Well. Mazzy wants in. And on occasion, we oblige. (If you like, you can click here to read all about our stand-off over a doughnut.)
To make matters worse, Mazzy has now learned the words for both pretzel and cracker. She screams them over and over again the second we sit her down in the highchair and present anything resembling a well-balanced meal.
It is a problem.
So, I did what any mother who has exclusive access to a developmental psychologist would do— I enlisted professional help.
Dear Dr. B,
I have three questions: 1) How do I encourage healthy eating in a 15 month old? 2) How do I communicate that certain foods are okay sometimes but that she can't have them whenever she wants? And 3) FOR THE LOVE OF BROCCOLI, HOW DO I STOP THE BEGGING?
Dear Mommy Shorts,
Picky eating is very common among young children and they often get stuck on specific preferred foods for brief periods of time. Usually these preferences are temporary but if they are stuck on unhealthy choices or an unbalanced diet, it is a good idea to intervene.
Below are some tips for encouraging healthy eating behavior:
Provide Healthy Choices: Limit your child’s diet to only healthy options but provide lots of choices. Select healthier snacks between meals that would be acceptable during mealtimes as well. If they ask for something that is not on the plate, say, “we don’t have pretzels” in a neutral tone and then present the choices they do have in a positive way. (Editor's Note: I guess it would be a good idea not to store pretzels and crackers in an exposed snack bowl on the kitchen counter— damn NYC kitchen cabinet space!)
Children develop preferences very early and they cannot develop preferences for junk food if it is not available. If possible, it is best to introduce unhealthy snacks when children are old enough to understand that these items are only for special times or occasions.
Positive Attention for Good Eating, Ignore Other Behaviors: The most common strategy suggested for picky eating in young children is to give positive attention when your child exhibits good eating behaviors (e.g., exploring, touching, or tasting the healthy food presented) and ignoring your child’s whining or begging for the other food after you have already indicated that it is not available. This does not mean that you should ignore your child entirely. You should just ignore the begging while you continue to encourage them to eat the food offered.
In order for this strategy to work, you need to remain consistent, calm and positive. Do not give in, which will reward and increase the whining and screaming behavior. Try to reduce any tension this may cause by providing tons of positive attention to serve as a distraction.
Keep in mind that it is important not to force your child into eating the healthy item because then eating will become associated with negative feelings and discomfort.
Be a Good Model: Another strategy that often works is trying the food yourself. Sometimes a simple, “Ummm, yummy, tastes like crackers!” does the trick. Usually when you are willing to try the food and show your child how good it tastes, they are willing to try it too.
Consider Likes and Dislikes: Some children have preferences for different tastes or textures. Your child may like pretzels because they are crunchy or salty. Find healthy options with similar taste profiles. Many children love ketchup and they are willing to eat anything as long as it has a little ketchup on it.
Be Creative and Make Mealtime Fun: Consider your child’s interests and think about what may make healthy food look fun and exciting for them. For example, if they love a specific animal or character, buy a special plate or spoon with the character on it. Cut foods into interesting shapes or present them on the plate in an interesting way. For example, you can cut fruits and vegetables into fun shapes and then put them in various containers so that they always look like an exciting new snack.
Adjust Portion Size but Don’t Stop Serving: Children may be more willing to try a small piece of something new but may be unwilling to try anything when a whole plate of it is presented. Continue to present new foods but in small amounts. It can take 10 to 15 times before a child tries a new food so it is important to be patient. If you continue to serve it, they will eventually try it.
Combine Likes and Dislikes: Sometimes the best strategy is to combine healthy foods with preferred foods so that eating continues to be a positive experience for everyone. Spread avocado on top of a small cracker or crush a few pretzels in the pasta bowl. When your child requests the snack item, only present it with healthier items. Be stingy with the snack but very generous with the healthy items. When they are finished with the preferred snack, be firm that there is none left. If your child is hungry, they will eventually eat the healthier food to satisfy their hunger.
The good news is that children are generally not stubborn enough to go hungry. Don’t be concerned if they skip a meal at first, they will not starve. Instead they will learn to be more flexible eaters.
Obviously the easiest path to healthy eating is to only present healthy options right from the beginning. But birthday parties, play dates, road trips, etc. tend to make controlling the food your child is exposed to much more of a challenge. Hopefully, these tips can steer you back in the right direction.
If you have a question for Dr. B, our resident developmental psychologist, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.