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Picky Eaters

Air Date: 08/10/10 Cheryl can be reached at 775-331-6723, or at cheryl.erwin@sbcglobal.net.I was having coffee with a friend the other day when a group of moms at the next table began laughing together. The more they laughed, the louder they got, and it became clear that they were discussing their children's eating habits. "My four-year-old won't eat anything that's green," one mom said. "No peas, no broccoli, no salad. Orange works, though. Can a kid live on carrots and sweet potatoes?" "My daughter lives on mac and cheese and cheese pizza," another mom replied. "I used to try to serve vegetables but I just got tired of the whining." And a third said wistfully, "At least your kids eat. I've tried everything and I can't find a single thing except fast food that my son actually likes. He whines for McDonald's every single night." "Yeah, well, I win," the last mom said with a sigh. "I make three different meals every night: one for my husband and me, one for my daughter, and one for my son. I absolutely dread mealtimes in our home." It's totally normal for children to have foods they don't like and won't eat. For that matter, it's pretty normal for adults, too. For instance, I dislike both the smell and taste of bacon, hate the slimy texture of okra, and was willing to sit and stare at my pile of lima beans until they congealed on my plate when I was a kid. I still don't like em. Ick. Still, food does have a magical ability to become the topic of heated arguments and power struggles between kids and their parents. Parents worry about nutrition and giving kids a healthy diet and they want to keep it simple. Kids want foods that taste good, many of which rely on fat, sugar, and salt for their flavor. It's tempting to serve only the things you know your child will eat without debating you, to prepare special meals or favorite foods in order to have a peaceful dinner. But catering to children's food demands can quickly get out of hand as the four moms in the coffee shop had discovered. The truth is that you can't make anyone eat. You can coax, you can wheedle, you can play "here comes the choo-choo into the tunnel" with a load of vegetables, but you can't actually make a kid unclench her teeth and swallow. Remember those lima beans? My mom actually did make me sit at the dinner table long after everyone else had left in fact, I fell asleep there, with my still-uneaten lima beans on the plate in front of me. Apparently, lima beans can turn even the most cooperative and mild-mannered child into a tyrant. So if food wars are raging in your home, here are a few suggestions for calling off the hostilities. First, take a deep breath. It's highly unlikely your children are going to starve to death between dinner and breakfast, or develop rickets or scurvy from not eating veggies. Next, do some thinking about your child's diet and exercise levels. It may be tempting to stop at the fast food drive-thru to keep your child happy, but about one-third of American children are significantly overweight, and pounds that get packed on in childhood don't come off easily. Fast food, candy, chips, and other high-fat, high sugar foods are okay for an occasional treat, but they shouldn't be a regular part of anyone's diet. A simple, balanced diet is best and there will be things your child just doesn't like. Do your best to serve nutritious, tasty food: it's helpful to include at least one food in each meal that you think your child will eat. Sit down at the table all together, and let your child know that he needs to take at least one bite of everything on his plate but that's all. If he's hungry, he'll eat: if he doesn't eat, he can wait for the next meal. Give him a good multivitamin and relax and under no circumstances make special foods or meals on demand. Stay calm and kind, and let your child know that if he chooses not to eat what's on his plate, he can just sit and keep you company and leave the table when everyone is done. As kids get older, you may let them fix simple foods themselves when they don't like what the rest of the family is eating. My son ate ramen noodles or grilled cheese more than once when he chose not to eat what I'd prepared; he was also expected to clean up after himself. He actually learned to enjoy cooking, and dinner squabbles all but stopped. Let your kids help with the cooking--kids tend to like what they've helped prepare. I know of a preschool class that made smoothies out of kale and all swore it was delicious, while the next class looked on and went "eewwwww." Remember, kids do what works. If a child knows she can pitch a fit and get the tasty treat of her choice, you can expect lots of food drama. If you serve healthy, tasty food kindly and firmly, and leave the eating up to your child, she'll figure it out. Even if she never learns to love lima beans. For KUNR, this is Cheryl Erwin.