The truth about fussy eating

Just how much should you worry about what your kid eats?

It's no big secret that a lot of kids don't like vegetables. Or they think they don't like them, because they don't really know — they won't try them. Another non-secret is that one of the most exhausting aspects of parenting is arguing with your kids about the fact that they don't eat their vegetables. Tantrums, tears, and monumental battles of wills do not make for a happy family dinner table.

At what point, then, do you just give up the fight and accept that not even the smallest spoonful of peas is going to work its way through your offspring's tightly clamped lips? Does it really matter?

Well, yes. But maybe not as much as you think.

Healthy eating in childhood and adolescence is important for growth and development, says Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, founder of NutritionStarringYOU.com and author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club. You can't argue with the science of nutrition: While adequate calories are required for growth, adequate nutrients are necessary for good health. "It's actually easy to be overfed but undernourished," says Harris-Pincus. "Proper intake of nutrients like calcium, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, and vitamin D are important for bone growth and formation, for example. We're laying the nutritional groundwork for future health in childhood and adolescence so it very much matters what we feed our kids."

At the same time, you shouldn't be fraught with anxiety over your child's limited diet. "If your child is healthy, meeting their developmental milestones, and is at least consuming a small variety of foods (i.e. something from each food group: fruit, vegetables, grains, animal- or plant-based proteins, etc.), you're doing okay," says Tanya B. Freirich, MS, RD, New York-based nutritionist and registered dietitian for Sweet Nova.

Ok, so you have to keep pushing those veggies. But how do you get a fussy child to eat the good stuff when they're old enough to be wise to your hiding-mushrooms-in-the-sauce trick? If you feel like you've tried everything bar infusing broccoli through an IV drip, Harris-Pincus suggests switching up your approach. In other words, ditch the mushrooms and try something else. There are a lot of different vegetables out there, remember.

"Try different variations," she says. "One child may not mind mixing riced cauliflower in with their regular rice but wouldn't eat it plain. Brussels sprouts may be unappealing when served whole, but much tastier when shaved and sautéed with onions and bacon."

Your priority at mealtimes should be to help your kids develop a healthy relationship with food, rather than focus on one particular food like carrots or Brussels sprouts. "The most important thing is to be a good role model and prepare and eat these nutrient rich foods yourself," Harris-Pincus adds. For this to be most effective, it's best to start modeling healthy eating habits as soon as your child is old enough to watch you eat. But it's never too late.

You can always find ways to make your kid's favorite foods more nutritious, Harris-Pincus says, like adding very small pieces of spinach, broccoli, or peppers to their pizza. And speaking of pizza, at least they're getting tomatoes through the sauce. Claim your victories where you can.

For some kids, portion size is an issue — they just can't face a mountain of broccoli. It's time to downsize, Harris-Pincus says. And it turns out you can use those small portions to adapt your old hiding-mushrooms-in-the-sauce trick — which, let's face it, never really went to plan. "If your kid likes burgers, meatballs, or meatloaf, blend mushrooms in a food processor and mix them into the meat before cooking," Harris-Pincus says. But don't hide the fact that they're there. "Just make your child aware that this is a great way to eat mushrooms."

One approach to healthy eating definitely doesn't work: threatening punishment if your child doesn't eat the food. "The dinner table should be an emotionally safe place, not a battleground," Harris-Pincus says. "It's also important to be patient; don't confuse a phase with permanent behavior. Taste preferences may change. Just stay on message and always serve as an example of healthy eating behavior for your child."

Consistency is crucial, Freirich agrees. Offer a healthy variety of food at every single meal, but don't prepare different meals for different members of the family. And while taking your kids to the grocery store might be up there with your least favorite things to do, it's worth it if it gets them on the veggie train. "Children are much more excited about trying a food they took an active role in choosing," Freirich says. "At the store, let them choose what they want for dinner (within the limits you set, obviously). For instance, one child can pick the type of fruit that will be served and the other can pick the vegetable."

Freirich mentions the oft-cited "rule" that tries the patience of every parent: Children do not consider a food familiar until they've been exposed to that food at least six to 15 times. There is actually research to support this, if you go back far enough — a 1994 study published in Pediatrics found that 4- to 6-month-old infants were more likely to accept a new green vegetable after it had been offered to them at least eight times. However, there's no data backing this theory up for older kids. If you know a stubborn 8-year-old, you'll know you could offer them a carrot 53 times and get the same answer 53 times.

What might work better is suggesting a single bite. Freirich's "one bite" rule is that during every meal, your kid takes at least one bite of all foods offered. "If they don't like it, they don't have to carry on eating it, but at least they try," she says. "It may that be after 15 'one bite' exposures and several months, you'll be surprised to learn that they like that food."

If all else fails, just keep hoping. Hoping that your kid will outgrow the phase, and eat the carrots, and grow up to choose nutritionally balanced meals over junk food. And that one day, if they have kids of their own, they'll realize just how contentious veggies can be.

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