Why Are Kids Picky Eaters?

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While training to become a Registered Dietitian, I learned all the “tricks” to deal with a picky eater.

OR SO I THOUGHT!

I was basically under the impression that picky eating was the result of poor parenting. HAAA! This is so much more of a complicated subject than I was led to believe.

Well, I’m here to tell you that reality finally set in the day my son was born.

That’s right!

I couldn’t breastfeed like I planned to because all of the book knowledge (AND WIC experience) didn’t help me with my own unique problem. My son had a small mouth, a high palate, and I had flat, large nipples.

So, I dealt with it in the only way I knew. I pumped with a hospital-grade pump for 8 months (because the regular $200 pump wasn’t effective, and I started to lose my supply). Breastmilk is so incredibly superior to formula (not to mention that Nathan projectile vomited the formula up the first and only time we tried to give it to him right after he was born), that I was determined he was going to get it one way or another.

WHY ARE KIDS PICKY EATERS?

The good news is that I learned things along the way that are helping me to encourage my son to eat a more healthy and varied diet.

It started with pumping for breastmilk for eight months to what I am continuing to do today. And I’m still learning.

My son, Nathan, is now 13 years old, and he was just diagnosed with autism after years of symptoms pointing to it. One of the symptoms being Sensory Processing Disorder.

Sensory Processing Disorder affects many areas. However, one area in particular is sensitivity to food textures. It took me a long time to realize how much of my son’s pickiness was related to food texture, because prior to having my son, I had never even heard of Sensory Processing Disorder.

So, one of the most effective ways I have learned to help my son with his food-related sensory processing deficits is to:

Keep Foods Separate

Serving foods separately (as opposed to multi-texture casseroles, for example) encourages my son to try new foods. Foods, that when served as part of a mix, he wouldn’t be willing to try.

A little more history…

When Nathan started eating solid foods, I did all of the “correct” things I was taught to do in school.  I made everything from scratch, gave him whole grains, hid vegetables (at least tried to), made cute faces on bagels. You name it, I tried it.

Why are kids picky eaters?

My first clue that Nathan had texture issues with food was when I fed him pureed brown rice when he was six months old.

When Nathan was 6 months old, I gave him pureed brown rice and he gagged/spit it out. I thought it was simply because he didn’t like it. In fact, it was one of my favorite stories for years. Because let’s face it, pureed brown rice doesn’t sound very tasty!

Obviously, he was too young to tell me any different. So, I left it as just “he doesn’t like brown rice.” However, I’m convinced it was actually a texture issue that caused the gagging/spitting up. He actually likes rice now.  Even though he complains when I give him brown rice, he will eat it as long as it has cheese on it.

And then there was the “trying to hide the vegetables trick.”

That was a good one! He could see the vegetables and he could feel them in his mouth. No way was that going to work. I have found one solution to this problem, though: Homemade pureed broccoli, potato or mushroom soups. He will eat these.

It’s such a cute idea to make faces on your pancakes and bagels. However, my son was not impressed. He wouldn’t touch the pancakes or bagels if they were decorated. Why? Because technically that makes them a combination food. So, if he wasn’t interested in eating a bagel, putting a face on it only made it worse!

NO COMBO FOODS (or very few anyway)

Nathan is now 13 years old, and there are still many things he will not accept, especially if foods are mixed together. For example, Nathan likes broccoli, he likes pasta with alfredo sauce, and he likes chicken. However, I cannot serve the three as one dish. In fact, I can only serve two of those three things on the same plate (broccoli and chicken), and the pasta in a bowl.

Okay, okay! I COULD put those foods together.

However, he would loudly and vehemently complain, and it would add conflict to our already fragile-at-times relationship.  Yes, I try to be happy that he eats those three things, even if it does mean more work for me.

So, I have discovered that separating most foods before serving goes a long way towards appeasing his pickiness. And it definitely increases the variety of foods he will eat.

There are exceptions to this rule, by the way. For example, he will eat the delicious rice casserole I make on Christmas. And he will eat the original Garden Burger, which is a combo of rice, oats, onions, mushrooms.

If it’s healthy, stick with what they like.

For example, Nathan wants to eat broccoli every night. He also likes brussels sprouts and carrots, but brussels sprouts are expensive, so we don’t have those all of the time. He complains when I give him carrots, though I still give them to him once a week or so. However, since broccoli is so good for him, I don’t mind giving him broccoli most days.

And I give him lots of broccoli for the first serving, because I’ve discovered he’ll never ask for more. In contrast, when I give him pasta or meat, I give him less, because I know he’ll ask for more if he’s still hungry. This is a great way to prevent excess weight gain.

Don’t give up on trying new things.

Especially if there is an entire food group missing from their diet. I have been told that you have to try something like 30 times before you know whether you like it. In theory, that sounds great, so you should try it. I’m sure it works.

Can I be honest?

I have not had the patience to do that yet. However, Nathan eats something from every food group, so I haven’t had to resort to this tactic. It takes a lot of perseverance. But I’m sure it’s worth it. Click here for a great place to start if you’re interested in trying the 30 time trick.

HAVE YOU TRIED THIS?

Because if you have, and you’ve succeeded, I am SERIOUS when I say I want to hear from you. Because I am not perfect and I definitely don’t know everything. And I know that I can learn something from you, the readers.

Make sure your child is taking a good multivitamin with Iron.

(no gummy vitamins, because there is not a gummy vitamin out there with iron–believe me I’ve looked)!

Giving my son a multivitamin reassures me that he’s getting at least most of the stuff he isn’t getting through his diet. I just keep focusing on explaining why he should be eating this and that. And when he asks why he has to take that big old pill, I explain to him it’s because he’s not eating enough whole fruits and vegetables. I’m hoping eventually the light will come on.

A good multivitamin with Iron (one that is dye free, if possible) will supplement your child’s diet and should be safe for most children. Taking individual supplements (for example, iron only or zinc only) can throw other vitamin and mineral levels in the body off balance.

I do not recommend taking a specific nutrient supplement, without talking to your doctor first.

Here is an example of a typical day in Nathan’s diet:

Breakfast

Cheese Quesadilla – Cheese melted on flour tortilla in microwave

100% Juice

Lunch

Chicken Leg/Garden Burger/Fish Sticks (Van De Camps are the best/highest quality I have found); taquitos or mini tacos

Fruit or avocado (Nathan likes plain avocado, and avocado is really good for you, including being high in magnesium).

Did I mention that my son doesn’t eat the perfect diet?

Well, you have to pick your battles, and even as a dietitian, this can be a struggle. That’s why multivitamins are so important.

BALANCE IS KEY

Whole grain (as much as I can get away with) pasta or rice with cheese

I have started using lentil pasta because Nathan likes it better than whole wheat pasta. Adding lentil pasta is an excellent nutritional choice on many levels. Lentils are a type of bean (legume). Thus, they have additional nutrients that grains, even whole grains, do not.

The only problem for us is that we have found only one brand that is acceptable. The other brands we have tried were just way too starchy. The brand we use is Lensi, and they sell it at Walmart. They have it at Amazon as well, though it’s a lot more expensive than at Walmart. It is super high in protein, and of course, gluten-free. Plus, there are other bean pastas on the market today. The more variety in your child’s diet, the better.

Fruit – white grapes, strawberries, blueberries, or watermelon

100% Juice Box -it’s important to make sure you are buying 100% juice

Dinner

Chicken Leg/Garden Burger/Fish Sticks/Cod or Salmon

Pasta or rice with cheese or cheese sauce

Broccoli – Fresh only; Nathan won’t eat frozen

Milk – Horizon Organic chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry–no artificial colors, lower in sugar than store brand chocolate milk

Snacks

Nonfat frozen yogurt or no sugar added ice cream for dessert

Plain tortilla or multi Grain chips or Pretzels with string cheese – 9:00 snack -he’s very consistent about this

Unfiltered Apple Juice or 100% orange juice (one 4-6 ounce serving each)

So, there it is. I would love to hear what you think, and would like it even more if you shared some of your ideas and things that have worked for you in dealing with your kid’s pickiness!

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