P.E.I. dietitian offers tips to deal with picky eaters

Registered dietitian Roxanne Laughlin offers some tips for parents dealing with children who are picky eaters.

'It can take 8 to 15 tastes or exposures before kids will actually accept something'

Got a picky eater at your house? You're not alone — we have some tips. (iStock)

If you're a parent, it may be a long-running discussion in your home — how to get your children to eat healthfully and try new foods.

March is nutrition month and the them this year is 'Take the Fight out of Food.' 

Stick to three meals, and two to three snacks a day, and no grazing in between.— Roxanne Laughlin, registered dietitian

"Mealtimes tend to be a real struggle and as dietitians we hate to hear that," said Charlottetown registered dietitian Roxanne Laughlin, who offers up five tips for dealing with children who are picky eaters.

1. Be patient

Introducing new foods can be a challenge no matter our age, but it's even tougher when dealing with kids, Laughlin said, noting getting used a new taste can take time. 

"It can take eight to 15 tastes or exposures before kids will actually accept something," said Laughlin.

Think about how you learned to like something new, she advises — offer small tastes over time alongside foods kids already know and like.  

2. You're not a short order cook 

The most common complaint from parents is they spend too much time cooking different foods for each kid in the house taxing them, "time-wise, money-wise, and the kids don't get to learn what it is to sort of adapt and to eat healthy foods," Laughlin said.

One meal for everyone is the way to go, using a combination of familiar foods and introducing new ones.

3. Take charge 

As a parent it is up to you to decide what's on the menu, when everyone will be eating and how, Laughlin said. Establishing a schedule adds predictability kids prefer and helps develop a routine.

P.E.I. dietitian Roxanne Laughlin says up to 35% of toddlers and preschoolers are picky about what they eat. (Mitch Cormier / CBC)

Your kids can decide how much they want to eat and if they want to or not.

"Stick to three meals, and two to three snacks a day, and no grazing in between," advises Laughlin, noting milk or extra snacks can fill kids up so they won't eat at meal times.

4. Set an example  

If you want your kids to eat it, you'd better be ready to toss it back too. Kids will take their cues from you, Laughlin said, so if you're turning up your nose at something don't be surprised if they follow suit.

Laughlin also encourages parents to take kids grocery shopping and have them help cook to be part of creating healthy meals.

5. Undercover cauliflower doesn't work

Kids are smart enough to know what they're putting in their mouth so don't bother trying to hide something new, Laughlin advises. 

"Kids are really good at being able to pick that out, and being able to get rid of it," she said. "By hiding it they really don't get a chance to learn to like it."

The dietitians suggest offering the new food in different preparations — it's how Laughlin learned to like carrots, she shared.

"I hated cooked carrots as a kid, but my mother learned that I liked them slightly cooked, or I liked them raw."

Help is available

The Dietitians of Canada offer a number of resources to help parents deal with picky eaters.

Some provincial programs are also offered though dietitians, and there's even an app, cookspiration, to help you prepare healthy meals.

One last bit of advice — don't panic if your kids don't eat everything you give them or skip a meal altogether. Kids are still growing and even a small change in something like sleep patterns can affect appetite, Laughlin said.

"Some days they may need more and some days they need less, and the odd meal missed out it isn't going to break them," Laughlin concluded.