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How to handle a selective eater

Allison Lachowitz, RD, CSP, LDN, CNSC

"My child won't eat anything! What should I do?"

Sound familiar? I get versions of this question a lot, mostly from frustrated parents concerned their children aren't getting adequate nutrition.

Sometimes I tell parents not to be so concerned; if your child skips vegetables at one meal or refuses to drink milk for a few days, it's not the end of the world. But when children consistently refuse to eat entire food groups, or refuse to eat at all, parents need to get creative to keep children healthy. Thank goodness, there are plenty of ways to do this without making mealtime "battle time" in your house. 

It might help you to understand why your child might be selective about their eating habits. Oftentimes, food is one of the few things children feel they can control. So, think about ways to give your child a choice between healthy options; that way, they can feel in control, and you can know they're getting proper nutrition.

Here are some important things to keep in mind when helping your selective eater make good selections:

You can't force-feed a child, so don't think you can. Your child knows when she's hungry, and how much she needs to eat. Offer healthy options, but don't demand she eat a specific food or a specific quantity of food. That will make her feel more in control, and will keep you from fighting to enforce your demands.

Work with your selective eater, not against him. If he won't eat fish but loves chicken, learn new ways to prepare that chicken, and find healthy pairings for it.

Look for alternative foods similar to ones your child will eat. A child who likes pasta might be willing to try spaghetti squash. A kid asking for French fries might enjoy roasted sweet potatoes.

Eat on a regular schedule. Offer consistent mealtimes and snack times so your child knows when he will be eating next and won't fill up on snacks right before a meal, for instance.

Get distractions out of the eating area. Turn off the TV, put away the phone, and keep the focus on the food. Make sure to present at least one option your child will eat so he understands what's on the table is what's being served, and that you won't be making another meal especially for him. If he's hungry enough, he will eat.

Introduce a new food repeatedly. Your child might need to see a food a few times or even touch and smell it before trying it for the first time. Talk about the new food, and let your child see you eating it. Don't give up because of one negative comment by your child.

Make food preparation and eating fun! Involve your child in selecting produce at the grocery store or choosing what to make for dinner. This, again, gives her control over what she eats. Serve new foods alongside familiar ones, and use dips or sauces to make vegetables more interactive and interesting.

Don't use food as a reward. Dessert should not be served every night, so don't let your child think that eating vegetables is always the ticket to a scoop of ice cream. And remember to look for healthier desserts, like strawberries and yogurt, or watermelon slices.

Above all, don't focus too much on food, and don't panic! Your child is probably getting the nutrition she needs, and will likely grow out of her selective habits when given time and healthy alternatives.