Have you tried everything to get your picky kid to eat? Maybe that’s the problem.
Nutritionist Caitlin Kiarie, the founder of Mom-n-Tot Nutrition of Montclair, has much to say on the topic of picky kids. Many parents struggle with children who don’t eat the way they’re “supposed” to, leading to frustration, worry, and discord in families. Through group lectures and individual counseling, Kiarie has helped many families restore order and harmony to the dinner table and beyond. One area, however, is a little tougher to tackle – the lunch box! How do you get your child to eat when you’re not present?
There’s no shortage of information out there offering the magic solution to get the little ones eating. Fancy lunch boxes, character-themed treats, and food cut up in all sorts of elaborate designs are all touted as the solution to an age-old problem. But Kiarie says that while bento boxes and precisely arranged produce may look pretty and appealing to adults, it can easily overwhelm a child. The quantity of food or an unfamiliarity with it can often lead a child to opt out of a meal, defeating the whole purpose. So what’s a lunch-packer to do?
First, Kiarie says, expose your child to the food you plan to serve in their lunch box either the night before or in the morning before school. A big box of surprises might be more than the child can handle, so offering up a nibble before sending them off might remind the child how much they liked it earlier. Suggesting the child try a bite of the actual sandwich or food in the comfort of home may take some of the mystery out of the meal.
If you’re noticing the lunch box is coming home untouched, get to the root of why. Nagging a child too eat will likely backfire, but so can even simple encouragement. Assuming the child doesn’t like something left behind after lunch isn’t the answer though. Opening a dialogue with your child can help. Avoid asking, “Why didn’t you eat?” but rather, “I noticed you didn’t eat your lunch. What was happening today?” takes the focus off the meal itself and gives the child the opportunity to explore what other factors may have contributed. A test, friendship woes, or simply transitioning to a new school year could be the cause of a smaller appetite. Similarly, a child could be distracted by friends or simply find there isn’t enough time to eat everything that was packed.
When your child comes home hungry and the lunch box is still full, it’s tempting to assume they didn’t like what was packed and offer an alternative snack. Caitlin suggests the opposite. You may be surprised to find the child is eager to finish what they weren’t able to earlier. Another option is to offer to split it. Sometimes saying, “Hey, I’m going to eat some of these baby carrots. Do you want to have some with me?” is enough to get your child interested in them.
Kiarie offered up a few more tips for the lunchtime feeding frenzy:
• Don’t let peer pressure derail you. If other kids in the lunchroom are bringing in items you wouldn’t normally serve, don’t alter your shopping to suit other families. Stick to a “In our house we…” model.
• Stop using the word healthy. Instead, focus on taste. Offer up fruits and vegetables, not because they’re good for your child, but because they’re tasty. Changing the narrative for why you eat the good-for-you foods takes some of the pressure off the child.
• Don’t hang your hat on one meal. If lunch time still ends up a disaster, look at the other times your child is eating. If, at the end of the day, your child has eaten a well-rounded variety of foods, you’re probably doing better than you think.
• Pack the rainbow. Offer a variety of colors to your child throughout the day to ensure they’re getting a range of nutrients and flavors.
• Keep schedules in mind. If your child is younger and snacks are still served, it’s possible they simply aren’t hungry come lunch time. If they tend to eat a really filling breakfast, they may not want to eat so much in the middle of the day either. Again, try not to look at one isolated meal.
It’s never too late to turn around a picky eater. It’s true that an older child may take a little longer to adopt better eating habits, but persistence and consistency are key. When kids see the struggle taken out of meal times, they tend to feel empowered. The kids become happier and so do the parents.
Kiarie offers a variety of services for parents of kids all ages. To learn more, visit her website. There you’ll find information about group lectures, educational services, individual counseling and more. You can also catch Kiarie at her workshop “How to Get Your Kid to Eat” at Montclair B.A.B.Y. on October 14 at 7:45 PM.