Picky eater: Age 5 and beyond
Have a picky eater? Elisa Medhus, MD, has some advice to help you and your picky come to terms!
Will they wither away?
Not a day goes by that I don't wonder whether my kids suffer from underdeveloped senses. They can't seem to smell the dirty socks that have been on their feet for a week. They scarcely hear me calling them to do their chores. And they're blind to toys and dirty clothing strewn from pillar to post in their rooms. But, according to the Discovery Channel, when an animal is deficient in one sense, he compensates by over-developing another.
Personally, I can swear by that on a stack of Dr Spock books. Until they're teenagers, whereupon they eat anything placed in front of them -- dead or alive, their every taste bud is on alert 24/7, ever vigilant to be called upon to activate the gag reflex lest something green, unsweetened, lumpy crosses their paths. All kidding aside, scientific studies show that kids have a more heightened sense of taste.
This, and the oversensitivity to touch some kids have that places them at constant odds with sock seams and shirt labels, has got to be one of the biggest sources of consternation for parents. I, for one, was sure my eldest son would shrivel away and disappear. It seemed he was born with a peculiarity at birth: he could only eat food that was beige: French fries, cookies, cakes, bread and pizza. (Okay, so he's colorblind). My husband and I fussed over him every time he hovered over a plate. We begged. We pleaded. We bribed. We threatened. And nothing.
We bought special supplements that tasted like a combination between sawdust and manure. We took him to specialists to see if there was something physically wrong with him. But nothing helped. He was an incorrigibly picky eater who seemed destined to remain 48 pounds for the rest of his life. Now, as I look at that boy, now 14 and taller than I am, I wonder why I wasted so much time and worry over his eating. Heck, he puts the hottest picante sauce on nearly everything he eats -- even his cereal. Now I obsess over the grocery bill instead.
In retrospect, I learned that picky eaters nearly always grow to become more food tolerant. As a doctor and as a mother who's been there and back, let me share some suggestions with you until your children get to that point:
1. Take comfort in knowing that their bodies are smarter than both them and us put together: Like a smart bomb, it will seek its target -- in this case, the nutrients they need.
2. Offer new things frequently from all different food groups, and invite them to help pick out different foods during your grocery shopping.
3. Keep junk food out of your house so that when they're hungry, their only choices are healthful food or starvation. I've yet to see a child pick the latter option.
4. Try to observe particular tastes and textures that turn your children off and avoid them as much as possible.
5. When they're old enough, let them help prepare some meals. There are some cookbooks that have fun and easy to make dishes that are assembled more like an art project than a meal, turning pears into porcupines and celery sticks into pirate ships. Being involved in the selection and preparing of meals may give your children a sense of control and ownership over their eating habits.
6. The most important piece of advice I can give you: NEVER make a big deal over your children's picky eating. If they sense that getting them to eat is more important to you than to them, they'll use their pickiness to manipulate you into a power struggle. Stay calm and shrug off their refusals. Then say something like, "Okay, if you don't want to try this, that's fine, but you're really missing out." There is strong evidence that making a fuss over dinner is linked to the development of eating disorders. 7. When your children are past the toddler stage, say around five or so, it's okay to calmly say something like, "Okay, you don't have to eat what's on your plate, but next meal is breakfast," and then keep their plates ready to reheat and serve in case they become hungry later on. But don't be their short order cook and prepare them something different than the rest of the family. If they goes hungry that night, they'll catch up the next day.
8. Give your children a vitamin to fill any nutritional gaps, if you think their eating habits are particularly atrocious. My kids love Gummy Vites, because they taste just like Gummi Bears. I have to hide them so they won't take more than one a day
9. Around age 11 or 12, you can insist they take at least one bite of every food on their plate, but draw a line beyond which you refuse to push. There is nothing that incites rebellion more than making your children remain at the table until they've finished everything on their plates, even way past their bedtimes.
If you follow these suggestions, I promise you'll look back on these days and laugh (or cry) when you watch your 6-foot, 250 pound linebacker raid your refrigerator like a F-5 hurricane takes out a cornfield. And as you apply for that second lien on your mortgage to pay the grocery bills for your human garbage disposal, you'll wonder why the heck you were ever worried in the first place!