By Guest Blogger Carrie Friesen, MD

My two-year-old claims that her favorite food is brussel sprouts. I’m not convinced that she really likes them more than Chick-fil-A waffle fries, but she does like them. It may be the yummy way my husband cooks them (see recipe at the end of this blog), but it is also because so far she is not a picky eater. In my pediatric practice, older patients frequently turn up their noses when I ask if they eat some fruits and vegetables every day, and parents almost daily ask how to get their kids to eat more than chicken nuggets, french fries, and pizza. I believe that it is possible to prevent a picky eating habit and to change one already there.

Healthy eating habits begin in infancy. Feeding a baby is mostly about teaching them how to eat at first and letting them taste different foods. Parents should offer them a wide variety of foods at this time, even ones that the parents do not like. If a baby does not like something, keep offering it every few weeks and they will likely begin to enjoy it.

Toddlers are notoriously picky eaters. Part of this is due to their emerging independence, but it is often encouraged by parents’ actions. All children will at some time refuse to eat food on their plate. When this happens, many parents fear that their child will starve if they do not eat something, so they find something else they know the child likes and will eat. I once came very close to fixing Easy Mac for my daughter (who was just over 1 at the time) when she didn’t want to eat anything on her plate, so I understand that worry. The problem with being a ‘short-order cook’ is that kids quickly learn that if they refuse to eat something, mommy will bring something else. As a result, the foods they accept narrow more and more until they are only eating a few selective foods.

In Ellyn Satter’s book, Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense, she describes a division of responsibility between parent and child regarding eating. The parent decides what foods to offer the child and what time the child eats (ideally a variety of healthy foods given during 3 meals and 2-3 snacks), and the child decides if they will eat and how much. They might decide to not eat very much or anything at all during a certain meal, and that is generally OK. Children are smart and will not let themselves go hungry or thirsty. If they are hungry they will eat what they need. How hungry they are may vary from day to day, so they really might not need more than a small amount of food. I often remind myself when my daughter leaves food on her plate that she did not choose the amounts put on it like I did with my own plate. Following the above division of responsibility will prevent many arguments over eating and make meals more relaxed and enjoyable.

Children learn most things, including eating habits, by example. I recommend bringing children to the table to eat meals with the family at least when they start eating table foods, generally around their first birthday. This way they will observe their parents eating and enjoying foods, which will encourage them to try the foods and with time enjoy them as well. It may take a while before a child brings a particular food to his mouth, and then he may spit it out, but if enjoying foods is modeled for him he will eventually try it.

With older children and teenagers who don’t like certain foods, I encourage them to not give up on the food. For anyone, it can take 10-20 times of tasting a food before our taste buds decide to like it. I therefore encourage the picky older child to always try one bite. They may not like it, and that is fine, but the next time they should again try a bite. Eventually, they will usually discover that they like the food. For someone who is very picky it is a great thing to open up new foods they can enjoy.

If you are concerned that picky eating is affecting your child’s development or growth, talk to their doctor. If they have a more serious problem, such as with growth, swallowing, or a behavioral feeding disorder, a great resource in our community is the Kids Eat clinic. If interested in more information, a link to their site is here.

Eating habits will not change overnight, but modeling healthy eating habits, providing good (and good tasting) choices to your children, and encouraging them to try foods will go a long way to promote a lifetime of healthy eating.

Oh, and you’ll have to try my husband’s brussel sprouts recipe – I promise they really are delicious! Below is the recipe…

Greta’s Favorite Brussels Sprouts
The best Brussels sprouts are the small ones. They are more widely available in season (in Fall or Winter). Trim off the hard ends and any wilted leaves. Rinse them, and place them in a microwave-safe bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap, and microwave until the sprouts are tender but not mushy (about 3 minutes depending upon your microwave). When the sprouts are cool enough to handle, cut them in half (except for the ones smaller than about a half inch in diameter). Toss them in extra virgin olive oil.

Place a wire cooling rack in a rimmed baking sheet. Arrange the sprouts cut side up on the wire rack. Drizzle the sprouts with a little more olive oil, and sprinkle them with coarse salt and coarse-ground pepper. Adjust the oven rack to an upper position so that it will hold the sprouts within a couple of inches of the boiler element, and set the broiler to high. Broil the sprouts until the edges of the leaves on the cut side begin to brown. The goal is to have soft, but not mushy, toasted Brussels sprouts that are well seasoned.