Hey there, time traveller! This article was published 13/3/2017 (1007 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Alana Mazurak wouldn’t call her daughter Ayla a picky eater.
"We use the word ‘particular’ instead of ‘picky’ because I think that at that age you can have opinions," says the 29-year-old Winnipeg mom about her five-year-old daughter.
While her 10-month-old Juniper eats just about everything put on her plate, Ayla has been much less adventurous.
"Even as an infant she would spit out food."
Rather than getting frustrated or preparing separate meals, Mazurak got creative. She’d make meals that incorporated a wide variety of vegetables and other foods — sometimes hiding them in foods her daughter liked.
But veggies were always a menu selection in plain sight on the dinner table.
"It has to be on the table as an option, because if all you do is hide the healthy food, they will never get used to making that choice to eat it themselves."
The strategy worked. Today her daughter, while still cautious, more readily chooses healthy options and is apt to try new dishes.
Still, Mazurak can sympathize with parents finding mealtime mayhem-filled as they battle to get their children — young ones in particular — to eat healthily.
It’s an incredibly common problem.
Very few parents can’t relate to the challenges of getting their kids to try new foods and eat their vegetables, says registered dietitian Gina Sunderland.
It’s so widespread, in fact, the Dietitians of Canada decided to make it a central focus for Nutrition Month this March.
Dubbed "Take the Fight out of Food" the annual awareness campaign aims to help Canadians overcome some of the most embattled topics about nutrition, including how to deal with the often ongoing duel between parent and fussy child at the dinner table.
"About 25 to 35 per cent of toddlers and preschoolers are described by their parents as picky eaters," says Sunderland, citing a study from the Canadian Pediatric Society.
The stakes can be high. Instilling healthy eating habits early in life set children up to be healthy eaters as teens and adults.
And good diets are the cornerstone of good health. Sunderland says a bevy of evidence points to diets rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and low in processed foods helping prevent many of the leading causes of serious illness and death in Canada: cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
Often parents have been fighting a losing battle. Obesity — a major cause of all three major diseases — has been on the rise over the decades in Canada especially in children, according to data collected by Health Canada. Besides increasingly sedentary lifestyles, diets rich in saturated fats, high in salt and processed sugar are a major cause.
And prevention often starts at home with the parents.
"There’s a mantra among dietitians that as parents we have a role to play in that we decide what, when and where with food for our kids, and then kids decide if they’re going to eat and how much," Sunderland says.
Ergo feed them junk, and they will eat junk. Feed your kids healthy meals, and they… well, therein lies the rub: What if they refuse to eat healthy foods?
Fortunately, strategies abound to foster your kids’ appreciation of good food, she says.
And all these strategies share a common thread — they involve de-escalating the war.
Sunderland speaks from personal experience.
"I have also experienced the trial and tribulations of having a picky eater and just knowing how important it is for kids to eat well," she says.
"One of the big things, and my husband was better at this than me, was staying really calm and neutral."
It’s universal advice for any dinner table. "Mealtime should be joyful," she says. "It shouldn’t be this source of everyday stress."
But do be persistent — albeit gently so.
"It can take eight to 15 times of trying a food before a child will actually accept or like a new food."
One of the more successful approaches involves getting your kids to participate in preparing meals.
"When kids are involved in food prep and their choices, they’re far more inclined to eat those foods," Sunderland says.
That tactic bore fruit recently for registered dietitian Pamela Klassen with her four-year-old daughter Nevaya.
"She helped me make scrambled eggs," says the Winnipeg mother of two. "She saw me put the egg and cheese in and mix it up."
At first her daughter spit out the eggs as she often had in the past.
"She had this weird look on her face like ‘I’m going to tell you that I hate this.’"
But about a half minute later, her daughter said, "‘Mommy, I like that,’ and so she ate the first scrambled eggs of her life, and she’s four."
"It was a major victory," Klassen says.
But it was one built on trust, she emphasizes.
Children need to know they can reject a new food — hopefully spitting it into a napkin — so they feel as though they’re not being coerced.
The process can be long and often stressful. Even Klassen admits her daughter has had many meals consisting mostly of cucumbers — one of her few preferred delicacies.
But patience is definitely a virtue: encourage; don’t force.
"It’s super-frustrating, but I’m not going to force her to put a bean in her mouth."
Klassen says parents need to look beyond the day-to-day travails of getting their kids to eat better.
"Remembering that this one month, six months or year in your child’s life is not actually as important as how they end up when they’re 12 and can make their own decisions for food choices— or when they’re 15, 18 or 25."
Still, the actions of today do add up over time. That’s why it’s also important not to give in to to children’s fondness for not-so-healthy choices.
"If you’re only offering healthy options, and they’re just living on whole-grain breads, cucumbers and strawberries because those are the three foods they like, that’s not as concerning as acquiescing to their constant demands," Klassen says, pointing out that those demands are usually for less healthy options that are often high in sugar, salt and saturated fat.
"Because then, yes, you could be setting them up for health problems down the road."
Tricks or treats? Try these tips instead
Want your kids to eat healthier? Consider these tips from experts and moms (who are experts too):
Plant a garden: Nothing tastes better than garden-fresh vegetables, and they’re even more delicious when you’ve cultivated them yourself. That’s what Alana Mazurak’s five-year-old daughter Ayla has come to realize. She helps her mom plant the seeds and water the plants.
Try kid-approved recipes: Plenty of cookbooks have been developed for kids, but you don’t need to spend money, says dietitian Gina Sunderland. Just download a free app. “Dietitians of Canada offers its ‘Cookspiration’ with more than 300 dietitian-approved recipes — including many ‘kid approved’ ones.”
Treats, not bribes: Dietitian Pamela Klassen says parents shouldn’t feel guilty about letting their children have sweets or other so-called “treats” so long as they remain weekly rather than daily occurrences. What you don’t want to do is use them as bargaining chips (i.e. “Eat your peas, and you can have ice cream”) because it will create an expectation of treats all the time.
Skip the kids’ menus: When dining out, don’t look to the kids menu for healthy options, says food columnist Kathryne Grisim, whose blog foodmusings.ca covers the city’s dining out scene. “Typically the items are chicken fingers and french fries — essentially fast food.” Instead consider half-portions for entrées, and salads and vegetable side dishes that can be shared.
You eat healthy, they eat healthy: Winnipeg mom Jenny Sudniece leads by example for her daughter. “She always wants what’s on my plate, so I make sure that everything I have is healthy.” And always speak highly of the veggies, because that appreciation of healthy options “will get transferred to your kids.”