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Offer Variety to Help Picky Eaters
By Amy Woolfolk
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- If preparing meals for a picky child means extra time in the kitchen, arguments and frustration, consider offering a variety of foods at meal time to please every eater.
"Every picky eater has different habits, so it is difficult to define the term," said Dr. Melissa Mixon, human nutrition specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service. "Picky eaters are identified, however, as people who refuse to eat a particular food or group of foods."
Mixon said offering a variety of healthy foods for meals or snacks can encourage picky eaters to try more foods.
"Most picky eaters are children," Mixon said. "If picky children are urged to eat a variety of foods, they usually will outgrow their dislikes. Adult picky eaters probably were not encouraged to try new things as children."
Do not cater entire meals to picky children. Mixon said prepare one dish the child likes and then ask them to eat what everyone else is eating.
When serving small children, remember they do not need an adult-size serving.
"A child only needs about one-third of what an adult eats," Mixon said. "Give children smaller servings than you think they can eat. They can always ask for more."
The specialist cautioned parents not to force-feed picky eaters.
"Many children use their eating habits as a way of setting their own identity," Mixon said. "Force-feeding could backfire and have a negative effect. Kids eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full."
If children prefer junk food to healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, reduce the amount of junk food in the house or offer it only in moderation. Mixon said do not use junk food as a reward for eating healthy food.
Explain to children that some of their favorite snack foods may contain healthy ingredients. Notice any flavors children prefer and introduce healthier forms of those ingredients.
"If children like strawberry tarts, encourage them to eat fresh strawberries," Mixon said. "Offer plain cheese to children who like cheese-flavored chips or crackers."
Allowing children to help select foods in the grocery and to help prepare meals can create a sense of pride for them, Mixon said. Even the pickiest eaters will want to try new foods if they helped prepare them.
The specialist advised parents to set a good example for their children by eating the foods served and providing a pleasant dining setting.
"Parents can encourage kids to eat what is offered by doing so themselves," Mixon said. "Parents should not openly voice their dislike of foods."
Picky children benefit from an eating schedule. Mixon suggested trying to have meals at the same time each day. She also said the eating environment should be friendly.
"Keep conversation light and cheerful around the table," Mixon said. "If a child gets in trouble at school or has a problem, do not bring it up at meal time. Negative talk may cause a picky eater to eat even less."
Picky children seldom risk serious nutritional problems, Mixon said. As long as a child gets some foods from each food group, they should be fine. Realize there are different types of foods in each group.
"If children do not like milk, encourage them to eat yogurt or cheese. If they do not like meat, offer them peanut butter," Mixon said.
"The key to dealing with picky children is to offer a variety of different foods and to set an example as a parent. Be patient and persistent."