How Do You Meet Your Picky Eater’s Nutritional Needs?

There have been many obstacles in my child-rearing journey. Pregnancy cankles, painful latching, sleepless nights, teething, potty training, the yearly stomach flu, weaning, potty training round 2… You name it, I’ve conquered them all.

But nothing has been more nerve-racking and persistent as worrying about my kids’ nutrition. From the moment they started their first solids (Will this strawberry kill them?), to becoming extremely picky eaters out of nowhere (My toddler only eats bread – will he become malnourished and die?), and now that they’re school-aged, agonizing over what to pack them for lunch (Am I poisoning my kid with all these tuna sandwiches?)... I’m constantly struggling over what to feed my kids, and how to keep them healthy (and alive).

We spoke with Nurture Life’s Registered Pediatric Dietitian, Lara Field, and asked her our top 10 questions regarding our kids’ diets. Here’s what she has to say:

I’m a picky eater (basically raised on corn flakes, meatloaf and mash, and mac n’ cheese mostly). How do I go about raising a child who has a broader palate than mine, and also expose myself to new foods at the same time?

For adult picky eaters, raising a child is a great opportunity to change your own eating habits. Foods that may be a little uncomfortable may seem a bit more approachable when feeding your child.

The key to broadening our eating horizons is to try, try, and try again! If you or your child aren’t wild about steamed broccoli on Monday, don’t nix it from your diet altogether—try it again at another time. Aim for a balanced plate, incorporating something from each food group (lean proteins, veggies, whole grains, low-fat dairy and fruit) at most meals. Even if your servings of whole grains and greens are small at first, try to make it happen at every meal.

Consider introducing one new food at a time, keeping the core of a familiar meal the same. (Add green beans to your favorite meatloaf and mash dish, for example.) A sudden overhaul of your diet won’t effectively rehab your taste buds. However, introducing new foods gradually and alongside familiar foods can ease the transition.

I really want to get my kids eating fish from an early age. What are some healthy fish options that are low in toxicity and how much should they have at different ages?

I recommend reviewing the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch to learn about the best fish options in your area. Typically, you should avoid predatory fish such as swordfish or shark and choose freshwater Alaskan salmon and Pacific cod from the U.S. or Canada.

There is a general concern that certain seafood may contain contaminants including metals (mercury), industrial chemicals (PCBs) and pesticides. You can have too much of a good thing, even with seafood that is typically lower in contaminants. Aim to include fish two times per week for a well-balanced, omega-3 containing diet. Portion size depends on your kid’s age: A good rule of thumb is 1-3 ounces for toddlers and 2-4 ounces for school-age kids.

My child has sensory issues when it comes to fruit (hates the smell and sometimes the texture). What’s a good way to serve fruit so he’ll actually eat them?

Try blending fruit into something more familiar, like a smoothie, yogurt, or muffins. You can also try serving freeze-dried fruit with no added sugar. The crunchy texture (which your child may prefer) also makes it a great nutrient-dense alternative to chips. Consider leaving sliced fruit out and available or even on a platter at meals. The presence of ready-to-eat fruit will help your child build up confidence to take a bite.

What are some good school lunch ideas for very picky little ones?

Packing lunch in a thermos can be a fun choice for picky eaters. Rather than your typical sandwich, think outside the box and go for a warm lunch. Preheat the thermos beforehand by filling it up with hot water and letting it sit covered for 5-7 minutes. After emptying the water out, fill the thermos with your pre-heated meal.

Spaghetti and meatballs, mac and cheese, rice with veggies, or leftovers from the night before are all good, thermos-friendly options!

Another option is to use a lunchbox with separate compartments. Picky eaters can be more open to eating a variety of foods if they’re not touching. Lunchtime should be a time for incorporating balance, so include whole grains, lean proteins, fresh fruit and vegetables, and dairy to keep your kids feeling full and focused for the remainder of the school day. Remember that balance is key!

My child eats a lot of good, healthy snacks throughout the day, but I can’t get her to sit down for a meal. I know that cutting down on the snacks would probably get her to sit down for the bigger meals, but I’m not clear on whether it’s better to be a grazer or a meal-eater.

Sitting down during mealtime helps kids eat nutritionally-balanced meals, learn about their fullness cues, and also bond with parents and caregivers. Snacks typically are not as well balanced and may fill kids with poor nutrition. Additionally, large snacks can impact children’s hunger for meals, causing the wiggles and general disinterest to sit at the table. One of the skills kids learn at mealtime is understanding what it feels like to be hungry and full. Eating frequent snacks can offset their appetite regulation, making it harder for them to listen to their bodies and learn about their hunger levels.

What are some good breakfast options for a picky eater that will get them to start the day with protein?

I love adding protein to my family’s breakfast. Protein is chock-full of important calories to maintain fullness and focus. In addition to standard scrambled eggs, include eggs in dishes like whole grain pancakes, muffins, and French toast. Dairy also provides a good source of protein, in addition to a calcium boost. One of our favorite choices is Greek yogurt alongside your little one’s favorite fresh fruit.

Whole grains include important protein as well. Choose higher fiber options like oatmeal and quinoa. Top with chia seeds or nuts (think slivered almonds and walnuts) or even swirl in peanut butter to add a protein boost.

What are some healthy snacks we could keep stocked in the pantry to replace the typical processed options?

I always have nuts on hand, such as pistachios, almonds, peanuts, and cashews, as well as pumpkin and sunflower seeds. Roasted chickpeas and low-fat popcorn make for great natural choices rather than typical processed chips, salty crackers, and other sweet snacks. For toddlers as well as bigger kids, freeze-dried fruit, whole grain crackers, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt with fruit, and even whole grain cereal make great snacks.

What’s a good age to introduce herbs and spices to kids? And are there any we should stay away from that could be dangerous to little ones?

Babies are exposed to a variety of “tastes” in utero from their mom’s diet, so whatever mom has enjoyed during pregnancy, baby has enjoyed too. As soon as your baby is introduced to foods, you can start enjoying herbs and spices. We feature herbs and spices starting in our Stage 2 combination purees, such as turmeric, cinnamon, basil, thyme and curry. The only spices that parents should consider avoiding are hot peppers and other super hot spices.

What are your thoughts on homemade juices and smoothies for little ones? I know many people use them to sneak in a lot of fruit but what about the sugars? Is it too much for kids?

Juice, even 100% pure juice, is nothing more than a dose of sugar for your little one. Fresh fruit is beneficial for its vitamin and mineral content as well as its fiber. However, when juiced, fruit loses the fiber that aids digestion and regulates blood sugar. That said, 100 percent veggie juices can help kids gain nutrients from vegetables they may not normally eat, especially during toddlerhood.

It’s crucial for children to learn to love liquids that aren't sweetened, like water. Otherwise when given a choice, children will usually choose the sweeter option. So, make sure your kids think of juice as a treat. Offer it infrequently rather than making it a mealtime staple.

When making smoothies, milk or yogurt should be a key ingredient. Add in one cup of berries with a handful of spinach and equal portions milk or yogurt. Adding yogurt or milk brings a dose of bone-building calcium and protein and also cuts down on the total amount of sugar.

My child has an aversion to meat. What are some good ways I can make sure he gets enough protein throughout the day?

Protein needs for children are very low, much lower than parents typically realize. A good rule of thumb is to take your child’s weight (in pounds) and divide it in half. This is the rough amount of grams of protein your child needs. When you add up the protein found in whole grains, veggies (yep, they contain protein too!) and dairy, your child’s protein needs may be met without the meat. Legumes such as peanuts, beans, and lentils are a good source of protein for veggie-centric children. Nut butters and yogurt are also very kid-friendly options. I suggest letting your children be your guide and offer a balance of healthful foods on a regular basis.

How do you deal with a picky eater? What are some of your struggles when it comes to your kids’ nutrition? Share with us!

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Fearless Feeding

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