Having a child with one or more food allergies makes meal planning more of a challenge. If that child is a picky eater the challenge, and worry, may be increased.

Ellyn Satter, a family therapist, nutritionist, and recognized expert on eating and feeding offers parents of picky eaters helpful mealtime suggestions.

Different Responsibilities

Satter has found, for instance, that children develop eating competence over the course of their childhood when parents and kids maintain a mealtime “division of responsibility.”

With toddlers, children, and adolescents, the division of responsibility is this:

  • Parents are responsible for what foods are prepared, when the family eats, and where.
  • Children are responsible for how much they eat, and whether they do.

For this division of responsibility to work, parents must trust their children to decide how much consume, and whether to partake of what has been provided.

Satter also points out that all young children are to some degree picky about food, and most warm up to unfamiliar foods slowly. They might have to watch their parents eat, and touch or taste (put it in the mouth and take it out) a new food at least 15 to 20 times before they come to like it. By reassuring kids they don’t have to eat something unappealing, children are free to cautiously explore different tastes and textures, and will gradually learn to enjoy a wider variety of foods.

Cultivating Competence

Parents can further address picky eating by maintaining regular meal and snack times. With a set eating schedule, children are hungry but not ravenous when it’s time to eat. Most importantly, mealtime should be a pleasurable, and positive experience:

  • Never pressure children to eat certain foods, or certain amounts of food.
  • Teach kids to say, “No thank you” instead of, “Yuk” when they don’t want to eat something.
  • Serve unfamiliar food alongside familiar items, and foods that are not yet liked with those already enjoyed; do not make special items for a picky eater.
  • With each meal, serve one or two side dishes the picky eater usually chooses (e.g., fruit, bread, milk), but do not offer to make a substitute entree, such as a bowl of cereal.
  • If children put a food in their mouth they don’t want, teach them to quietly use a napkin to dispose of it.
  • Let children choose from what is served, even if that means they eat a pile of mashed potatoes and nothing else; parents should avoid commenting on their children’s food choices, likes, and dislikes.

Naturally, parents of allergic kids will be restrictive with allergenic foods. Other than that, meal menus should include fare that kids have not yet accepted. If Satter is correct, and there is much evidence that she is, offering kids a variety of food – without pressuring them to partake of it – cultivates eating competence, even in the pickiest of eaters.

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