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Expert Advice

How Do I Help My Picky Kids Pick Good Food?

By Joe Sugarman
Susan Oh, a mother of three, is a dietitian and director of the Research Nutrition Program, part of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Clinical and Translational Research. She supports scientific investigators conducting research on nutrition-related topics.

"Eat your vegetables." It's something parents have been imploring their children to do since long before the U.S. Department of Agriculture created a Choose My Plate Guide or Michelle Obama urged kids to eat right as a part of her Let's Move campaign. Research has shown that establishing healthy eating habits in your kids makes them better eaters for life, but how do stressed-out parents get their chicken nugget-loving children on the right path?

Give them an early start, says Susan Oh, a dietitian. She’s also the mother of three children: William, 12; Henry, 10; and Mia, 8. Oh says one of the best ways to get your kids used to eating the rainbow of foods their bodies require is to introduce as much variety as possible—even before junior moves up to solids from baby food. “Exposure is key,” says Oh, who points to myriad studies that have found increased exposure to foods as an infant leads to a greater acceptance of solid foods as children grow. “You want to expose them to different flavors as early as possible. Expand their palettes. I think it makes a huge difference in them being picky eaters down the road.”

Oh speaks from experience. She says her oldest son, William, is a classic picky eater, a “meat, rice, pasta, and potatoes boy.” 

He dislikes anything green and it drives me nuts, says Oh, who admits to not following her own advice when William was young. Still, she says, not all is lost if you get a late start exposing your kids to a variety of foods. Over the years, Oh has tried several strategies with William that have proved successful. She'll add vegetables to meals by spiking spaghetti with minced onions, carrots, zucchini, and garlic—"a type of Bolognese sauce jam-packed with more vegetables than traditional sauce, but you really can't tell there are vegetables in it." Over time, she's made the vegetable pieces larger and has found that William doesn't complain. When the kids were younger, she'd cut fruits and vegetables into fun shapes or skewer them on sticks, which made them more fun to eat. Dips, like hummus or ranch dressing, also helped make vegetables more appealing.

She also planted a vegetable garden with William and paid him to tend it. She says the garden gave her vegetable-adverse son a sense of ownership and made him curious to taste what he had grown. ("Surprisingly, he loved poblano peppers," she says.)

Oh says one of the most common miscues parents make is feeding kids separate meals. “That’s a really big mistake,” she says. “You basically become a short order cook. The kids get used to that pattern. Then they think, ‘I can get anything that I want. If I just want to eat buttered pasta every day, that’s what I’m going to ask for.’”

Instead, she says, parents should strive to set a good example by eating healthy, well-rounded meals themselves—what Oh calls modeling. For dinner, she’ll usually serve a vegetable,  a protein, and maybe a starch. “Kids learn that that’s what comes on my plate, that that’s what I’m supposed to eat. If Daddy is eating broccoli, then everybody has broccoli on their plates.”
Modeling also applies to portion control. At occasional visits to a fast food restaurant, the family of five will split an order of French fries or a single funnel cake on the Ocean City boardwalk, and the kids come to expect that.
Research has shown that forcing children to finish everything on their plate can negatively affect food regulation skills, causing them to not fully understand when they are truly hungry or full enough to stop eating. Oh thinks the solution to this classic tug-of-war should be based on circumstances as well as a child’s age. She says for the most part, when kids are young—under 2—they have an innate way of knowing when they’re full. But as they get older, parents should look for a motivating factor. “For instance, my daughter is a slower eater, and if everyone else is done and they run off, she’s like, ‘Oh, I’m full.’ If I know that she didn’t eat enough, I’ll ask her to finish her plate. Parents, in their minds, have a strong conception of how much their kids should be eating.
For me, the key is that they don’t ask me for food in an hour or two. And my rule is, once dinner’s over, the kitchen’s closed.”
Bribing a kid with dessert to get them to finish their meal is also a no-no. It's a strategy that in the end makes children see healthy foods as less desirable and dessert more appealing. "If they're still hungry and you let them eat dessert, they're just going to eat more dessert," says Oh. "It also encourages the idea of sweets as a reward, which can lead to unhealthy habits as an adult." ‘I had a hard day at work; I'm going to have a piece of chocolate cake.’"? 
Parents should strive to  set a good example by  eating healthy, well-rounded meals themselves— what Oh calls modeling.
As a working mother, Oh is the first to admit that always feeding her kids a healthy meal is a challenge. Meal planning, she says, is vital to her success. She lets her children make requests at the end of the week and incorporates them into the following week's meals. And she always cooks more than is needed for dinner to serve as leftovers, which she packs in school lunches.  
"Leftovers save us—financially, timewise, and healthwise. What are the alternatives? Something processed or frozen in your freezer? I have to do meal planning," she says. "Otherwise, we'd end up eating out every night."  /
illustration of vegetables
Vincy Cheung

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