Food fight

It used to be that parents felt they had to force a blanced meal on a picky eater. But parents have wised up, and experts agree: Children should be allowed some choices

Focus On Finicky Eaters

March 12, 2000|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Does this sound familiar? Your little girl or boy was a treat to feed as a baby. Ate Gerber's liquefied peas like a pro. But then the tyke grew up to be a pre-schooler, and something happened. Something bad.

Now, your angel is more finicky than a vegetarian at a Texas barbecue. Maybe all the little one will eat is peanut butter on Wonder bread with no crusts. It has to be creamy peanut butter, too. And don't dare cut the sandwich in half.

Few moments are more dispiriting for parents. Have I failed my child? Is death from malnutrition imminent? Should I force feed? Is this my fault?

The answers are no; probably not; absolutely not; and yes, possibly.

Unlike many of the other, tougher challenges of parenthood (potty training and most of the teen years leap immediately to mind), there is a pretty clear consensus on how parents should respond to the picky eater.

Pediatricians recommend that parents should set healthy, nutritious food before their children and then let the children choose what and how much to eat. "Picky eating is normal," says Dr. Raymond Sturner, associate professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. "Sometimes, they'll go for weeks wanting only macaroni and cheese and then move on to something else. That's perfectly healthy."

Unfortunately, accepting this is easier said than done. It's tough on a parent when a child refuses food and doesn't eat a square meal all day. But doctors say children can get by on far less than most adults realize.

What throws off many parents is that children just naturally slow down on eating in the second year of life. That's primarily because toddlers just don't continue to grow as fast or require as much food after a first birthday.

Plus, researchers say, children gradually start to become skeptical of new things, developing what many believe was a crucial biological defense mechanism in more primitive times -- a reluctance to eat things that look or smell different. "Picky eating tends to be a problem in the most conscientious families," says Dr. William V. Tamborlane, a pediatric endocrinologist and editor of "The Yale Guide to Children's Nutrition" (Yale University Press 1997). "It's mothers who want to provide the best possible nutrition to their children. It's almost like they try too hard."

Tamborlane strongly advises parents not to force children to clean their plate or otherwise stuff food in their mouths. From such actions are lifelong problems with obesity and eating disorders created, he says. Dr. William G. Wilkoff, a Maine pediatrician and author of "Coping With a Picky Eater" (Simon & Schuster $11), says the most common mistake parents make is simply allowing their children to drink too much milk or juice. Studies have shown children who get their calories from liquids won't eat as healthily. "The second biggest mistake is for parents to get all worked up about what their child is eating and talk about it at the table," says Wilkoff. "The third is to make special meals for the kids."

By making special meals for their children, parents can end up reinforcing a child's bad habits. Making pizzas in smiley faces and cutting fruit into animals is "fine if that's what you like to do, but it's not necessary," Wilkoff says.

Experts say parents should try to make meals a pleasant experience for children. It's a good idea, for instance, to regularly serve foods the children like, to patiently introduce new items, and to allow children to make choices. It's also best to remember that good nutrition can be spread across days, perhaps even weeks. No vegetables eaten today? Maybe a child will eat them tomorrow or the next day. "Growth and intake should not be measured meal by meal," says Sturner.

When a child refuses a food, don't think it's the end of the world, he adds. The best measure of success or failure are those height and weight charts your physician usually trots out to check your child's development. Only when children suddenly veer below their growth pattern do most doctors get concerned.

"The main problem we see is parents getting overwrought," Sturner says. "Make a variety of fruits, vegetables and sources of protein available every day and [do] not make sweets and less desirable foods overly available, and then let children be on their own. Picky eating is a normal process. It's just parents who make it worse."

Rules for children

In his book "Coping With a Picky Eater" (Simon & Schuster $11), Dr. William G. Wilkoff recommends these rules to help prevent a child from becoming a picky eater:

* All eating and drinking is to be done at the table or in a high chair. Not only does this help prevent eating snacks and excess drinking between meals, but it also trains children to appreciate the social aspect of meals.

* Limit drinks. Excess milk and juice are out. Water is fine.

* Only two snacks per day -- one at midmorning and one at midafternoon, with fruits and vegetables preferred.

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