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What to Do With a Picky Eater

Creative ways to slowly expand your child’s palate

While every parent wishes their child were a mini-foodie, some children are just picky. But fear not, parents – we talked to two local nutritionists about solving the picky eating problem, including creative ways to encourage your kids to try new foods. By following these expert tips, you can slowly start expanding your child’s palate while making sure they maintain a healthy diet.

Identify why your child is a picky eater

While it may seem like your child is just being stubborn when it comes to trying new foods, picky eating might actually be caused by one of several physical and psychological factors. Pediatric dietitian Jessica Setnick says sensory sensitivity, bad past experiences with food as a baby and natural anxiety levels are all common factors that lead to picky eating.

Special needs nutritionist Faye Elahi adds that oral motor delays cause children to be physically unable to consume some food because of the underdevelopment of their mouth. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies can also affect the smell and taste of food, causing children to reject certain kinds of food.

Lastly, Elahi says that medical conditions such as Crohn’s Disease, gastritis and bowel obstruction could lead to a loss of appetite in children, which parents can mistake for picky eating. Therefore, it’s essential to identify any factors that might lead to picky eating before you start tackling your child’s eating habits head on.

Create a reward system tailored to your child

As much as you wish your child would eat everything you put in front of her, that’s just not the case. “A child should be allowed to be the deciding factor about what goes in his or her mouth,” Setnick says. Therefore, Elahi explains that the most effective way to encourage your child to branch out in the culinary world is to find a reward system that is chosen by the child.

“What works for one child may not work for all picky eaters,” she says. “Offer options to the child and let them choose one.” One example she gives is rewarding a child with 15 minutes of playtime for trying a new food.

Expose your child to new foods

One of the best ways to introduce a new food to your child without forcing him to eat it is to expose him to the food first. Setnick says your child can experience this by observing other people eating the food, seeing it in the grocery store or even seeing it in books.

“Just because a child hesitates to try something new does not mean he or she is picky,” she says. “It means he or she is using good judgment to evaluate the safety, comfort and desirability of the new item.” Let your child see you eating the new food; this will assure him it’s OK to eat and remove any pressure to eat the food all by himself.

Get creative with the “icky” foods

If picky eating is getting in the way of your child’s health, you need to take action – this is your chance to break out your inner Bobby Flay. Elahi says adding unappealing foods to your child’s the diet requires “deception and patience.” You can make sure your child gets adequate nutrition by sneaking healthy foods into meals she likes.

Elahi recommends making veggie burgers with all your kid’s favorite toppings and adding puréed vegetables to pancake or muffin batters. You can also substitute super-food avocado for half the butter or oil in your child’s favorite cake recipe.

To introduce foods in a not-so-sneaky way, try substituting one of your child’s staples for a healthier alternative that’s not too different. For example, Elahi suggests serving coconut or almond milk with your child’s favorite cereal, or swapping out sugary snack packs for whole grain brown rice crackers.

RELATED: How to Get Your Kid to Eat Healthier Foods

Consult your pediatrician if you feel your child still isn’t getting enough nutrients

If you are still worried about your child’s health even after all of your efforts, Setnick suggests asking your pediatrician for a referral to a pediatric dietitian. “The most important thing the doctor can evaluate is your child’s growth,” she says. The pediatric dietitian will also look at a food diary to assess if any other intervention is needed.

However, Elahi points out that if you are actively trying to improve your child’s picky eating habits, it will take time before you see results. “Things get worse before they get better,” she says. “So it is important to be patient and set realistic goals for the child.”

This article was originally published in September 2013.