The daily war
The mere sight of peas evokes a screaming match from Ann's otherwise well-behaved five-year-old daughter Abbie.
"I've tried everything to get her to at least take a bite. There are only a few things that she does like and they are not very nutritious," says Ann.
It's an all-too-familiar scene. At one time in our lives, all of us were probably picky eaters — refusing to eat anything but toast for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It frustrated our parents. How were we going to get all the minerals and vitamins our growing bodies needed?
So what does a parent do with a pre-schooler who refuses to eat fruits or vegetables and claims the only food that isn't "gross" is peanut butter sandwiches? Do you force or bribe them to finish what is on their plate? How do you avoid a food fight with your five-year-old?
Most experts agree it is not worth rolling out the heavy artillery to get your kids to eat what you think they should. Here are some tips to keep peace at the dinner table.
Let your child see you eating healthy foods
Jeffrey Hampl, a registered dietician and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, believes the solution is for parents to keep "undesired" food out of the house in the first place.
"Practice what you preach and set a good example for healthy eating," he says.
Know that it's OK when your child doesn't like something
Not everyone — adults included — likes spinach. But you need to find a nutritional equivalent that your child will eat. "Parents are in a position to buy and cook healthy foods. If they don't want any, respect that choice, but don't make junk food an alternative option," says Hampl, who is also an assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition at Arizona State University.
It's easier for children to reach nutritional requirements than many parents think. If they won't eat vegetables, fruits have a similar amount of fiber and vitamins. If kids won't drink milk, offer yogurt, cheese or broccoli.
Keep introducing new foods
Place one-or two-bite portions of the new food on your child's plate, alongside more familiar foods, at each meal. Do not comment on whether or not they eat the new food. After several trials, the food will not seem so new and they may decide to try it.
"I would gently encourage your child to try something rather than fight over it. If they don't want to, so be it. As they grow older they will develop their own tastes. Tastes change over time," says Lawrence Balter, child psychologist, professor of applied psychology at New York University and editor of Parenthood in America: An Encyclopedia.
Don't force it
Don't force your child to finish his plate — six hours later, he'll still be sitting there.
"Parents should not make a child finish what is on their plate. Time at the table depends on age and circumstances: toddlers can eat in a minute and be allowed to run off and play. It is not wise to create power struggles over dining. If a child truly doesn't want to eat something, there is no value in making a big fuss about it. If they are not hungry now, but want to eat at an inconvenient time later, then provide them with something quick and nutritious," says Balter.
If you are worried your children are not getting their required nutrients — for the most part you don't have to. "'One-food jags' typically last from 10 days to two weeks. Keep track of what your child eats for a few weeks, and you will probably see that the child is not missing out on any nutrients in the long-term," says Hampl.
"Nobody really knows why some children limit themselves. It is usually the case with pre-schoolers. One likely reason is that they want sameness because it is reassuring," says Balter.
Rule out any medical problems
Being a picky eater early in life does not mean the child will develop eating disorders like bulimia or anorexia later. "Almost all kids go through a picky eating phase. It's a normal part of development," says Hampl.
But parents should pay attention to some warning signs that a child's eating habits are dangerous. If a child is not physically or socially active or if there is a total lack of eating, parents should worry. Trust your instincts. And make regular checkups with a doctor to make sure your child is growing normally.