Reader mom Jill* has a picky eater on her hands and needed advice from ZisBoomBah’s team of experts. Many parents are faced with these very same questions and challenges, so we are sharing Jill’s story — and the advice our expert gave her — with you:
“My oldest daughter has always been a picky eater,” Jill wrote. “I ‘make’ her taste everything on her plate (or mine), but she usually doesn’t like it.” For Jill, this is about finding foods that give Emma*, almost 8, the nutrition she needs and she also would love to eat — and less about her daughter giving her pushback. “It has always been a rule in our house that she must try everything on her plate. It is just understood, so there is not a power struggle. But often times, she will take the tiniest bite and tell me she doesn’t like it.” If Emma really won’t eat, Jill doesn’t force her. On the flipside, though, Emma can lose her bearing when she doesn’t eat enough or not the right kinds of foods. “Her whole personality and demeanor changes. She will start melting down. She starts crying and carrying on,” Jill said. “As soon as she eats properly, she goes back to her normal, pleasant self. She is actually quite a wonderful little girl.”
What’s more, Jill observed that Emma seems to have had low blood sugar issues ever since she was little. “We really try to focus on protein-packed foods,” the concerned mom said. The problem, however, is that Emma doesn’t like many of the typical foods that are rich in protein, like eggs or nuts. Plus, Emma’s sibling has a nut allergy, so peanut butter is banned from the house. Sunbutter, though, is a “huge hit” with both her kids, Jill said.
Emma typically has cereal for breakfast, a Sunbutter sandwich for lunch, and then the family usually has meat or chicken for dinner, with vegetables and rice or potatoes. “She will not eat white potatoes, but she will eat sweet potatoes. She will eat tons of mac and cheese and pasta, if given the chance. She won’t even eat fast food (which is good) and she won’t eat chicken nuggets,” Jill wrote.
Emma, who likes Sunbutter sandwiches and yogurt tubes, gets bored easily with her usual protein-packed meals and snacks. In addition, she has begun to dislike milk for its smell. So when Jill received ZisBoomBah’s newsletter “5 Protein-Packed After-School Snacks“ in her email inbox, she got excited. They looked “amazing,” Jill wrote, but… “She won’t eat them!” Clearly, it was time to bring out the big guns — a nationally renowned child nutrition specialist:
Expert Advice from Dr. Keith-Thomas Ayoob, ZisBoomBah Contributor
“Emma sounds like she’s aiming to do an 8-year-old’s power play. It’s OK to meet some of her demands, but you need to set some boundaries if her demands are interfering with a wholesome and balanced diet.
Here are some tips:
- Regarding milk, this is easy. Try a smoothie made with milk or yogurt and let her pick the fruit she adds in. She’ll have some control but you’ll get the dairy nutrition into her. Also, don’t be afraid to add a little chocolate syrup to the milk. Two teaspoons is fair game and it won’t break the calorie bank. With yogurt, lite yogurt is plenty sweet and it’s lower in sugar, or try Greek yogurt.
- To get more fruits and veggies into Emma, bring her to a farmer’s market or even the produce section of a large supermarket and have her choose three of her favorite fruits and veggies, plus one new one that she’d be willing to try. If she says she doesn’t like apples, get one each of four different types and have her taste them. Yogurt dips (sweet for fruit, plain with herbs for veggies) may peak her interest. If she doesn’t like fruits and veggies raw, try cooking them by baking them with some cinnamon and a sprinkling of sugar or poaching in juice. That softens them up as well, and she seems to like softer foods. Then move on to other fruits and veggies. If you get a repertoire of several in each group, consider yourself done.
- Stick to your guns about having her taste everything. Explain that it’s OK if she’s not in love with everything she eats. Encourage her to choose the vegetable for the family and even get her involved in simple preparation. If she actively breaks up the green beans or peels the carrots, she’ll likely have an interest in eating them — and even in making sure everyone else eats “what she made for them.”
- Emma can live without fast food and chicken nuggets. As for white potatoes, she can live without them but they’re perfectly good food. Baked white potatoes might taste better if you actually cooked them for longer — then the starch breaks down a bit, the skin gets more chewy, and it all tastes a bit sweeter. If she likes some ketchup, don’t argue. It’s OK. Or try sprinkling the white potatoes with a teaspoon of grated parmesan or Romano cheese — it adds very few calories but it gives taters a real kick. You can even try salsa on potatoes. Of course, sweet potatoes are great, so if you’re baking, boiling or roasting potatoes, it’s easy enough to throw in a sweet potato or two for Emma. They’re super nutritious just as they are, and it’s no extra work. As for the mac & cheese, let her know that mac & cheese need a veggie added, and let her choose which one to include. Start by adding just a small amount of the veggie, but increase over time so she’s eating a good 1/2 cup of veggies with each plate of mac & cheese. Then make this the “new normal” for her mac & cheese.
- I hear you about the meltdowns when Emma doesn’t eat. Frankly, I was the same way at her age. It’s not intentional — her body is just out of fuel. A slice of whole wheat bread with Sunbutter — or try almond butter — would probably do the trick. Instead of fruit juice, go for the whole fruit. The fiber blunts the quick rise in blood sugar and can keep her satisfied longer. In the morning, whole grain cereal and milk is fine but add in some extra protein with some yogurt, string cheese or even a handful of nuts [if safe for her sibling], to keep the blood sugar steady and the hunger pangs away.
Emma sounds like a great girl. Try some of these tips and her diet — and maybe her mood — will be even better. Whatever you do, try and avoid food fights. Set the ground rules, and if she decides to skip a meal, let her do it — and let her wait until the next meal. She’ll probably think twice before doing that again.”
ZisBoomBah contributor Dr. Keith-Thomas Ayoob, EdD, RD, FADA is a registered dietitian specializing in child nutrition and health. He has appeared on The Today Show, Good Morning America, CBS Early Show and ABC World News Tonight, and speaks on topics including childhood obesity and making nutrition and fitness kid-friendly. Keith is also an associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, where he is a practicing pediatric nutritionist and the director of the Nutrition Clinic at the Rose F. Kennedy Children’s Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center.