If you've ever sat at the dinner table and watched your adorable 3-year-old refuse to eat your home-cooked meal, complete with "broccoli trees," then chances are you've had some experience with a picky eater.
I've been there and am still waiting for my picky eater to turn the corner. The important thing to know is that he will. And yours will too.
It's helpful to understand the why of picky eating. Then you can empathize when your tot turns up his nose at peas, blueberries and carrots, foods he seemed to happily gobble up just yesterday.
As toddlers near their second birthday, they often become suspicious about any and all food placed before them. Why? Some researchers believe this is evolutionary a protective mechanism to prevent cave toddlers from walking around tasting everything in sight.
In addition, studies have shown that taste preferences and picky eating tend to be genetic. Of course, these facts don't tell the whole story. Family influences, lifestyle and child temperament all play a role as well.
So, what can you do?
Do your part and let your child do the rest. Continue to offer three healthy meals a day complete with vegetables and fruit. Serve two or three snacks a day that consist of fruit, whole grains, cheese and yogurt.
Don't give up. Be persistent about mealtimes and snacks. It can take up to 15 times before a child will accept or try a food.
Give your child some choices and some control. When serving a snack, allow her to choose between carrot sticks or banana slices. When preparing dinner, put her in charge of picking the vegetable that goes with it.
Give them at least one food you know they'll eat. When serving meals, consider their discerning palates. Serve them a favorite food along with a new food you want them to try. A little give and take will go a long way.
Involve your children in food preparation and shopping. Give them age-appropriate duties such as setting the table, picking out the fruit and vegetables at the grocery store or adding the tomatoes to the salad.
Look at the big picture. Instead of dissecting what your child eats at each meal, look at the whole week. You'll be surprised to discover that he covers most of his dietary bases.
Sit down and eat as a family. The benefits go far beyond modeling good eating habits. It's a time to talk, connect and show your children you care about them.
Talk to them about why healthy eating is important. Be specific. They need the vitamins and protein found in the fruits, vegetables and meats that you are offering them to grow, run, jump and kick that soccer ball.
On that note, my husband read a book to my children the other night about eating healthy foods, called "Eat Healthy, Feel Great" (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, $25.98, 32 pages) by Dr. William Sears; Martha Sears, a registered nurse; and writer Christie Watts Kelly. Written for children ages 4-8, it uses green-, yellow-, and red-light categories for foods. My kids loved and latched onto this concept! Now when we talk about foods, they immediately want to know "what light" it is.
Have one rule and one rule only: You must taste a food before you decide whether you want to eat the rest. This is the infamous no-thank-you bite. Children will get into the habit of refusing a food they thought they didn't like. Gently remind them about this rule. Just the other day, my son finally claimed, "Hey, I do like carrots!" A small but nonetheless joyous victory in our household.
Make mealtimes fun and enjoyable. There really is no sense in battling over food with your child. In fact, it can be unhealthy for you and for them. Let them decide when they've had enough instead of having a "clean your plate" rule. Call peas "green power balls" or make fun shapes out of fruit. Enjoying and relaxing together at mealtimes will reinforce healthy eating habits.
Above all, realize that this truly is a phase and that your child will continue to thrive and grow in spite of being a picky eater.