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Feeding finicky eaters (or trying to)

What to do when your child won't eat.

Do you dread dinner? If you're the parent of a finicky eater, who can blame you?

Heated arguments and high drama over peas and carrots are no fun. Neither is throwing away perfectly good food your child refuses to eat.

But you can take consolation in two facts: You're not alone, and it won't last forever. Lots of kids are finicky eaters, and most of them grow up to enjoy a wide variety of foods.

In the meantime, however, there are lots of things parents can do to make meals less of a struggle.

Experts offer these tips:

Relax. You may worry that your child won't grow normally due to lack of food. But such cases are rare.

Your pediatrician will check your child's growth at each checkup. If there's a nutrition problem, the doctor will tell you.

Provide lots of good choices. Kids can't snack on junk food if there's none in the house. So stock the cupboards and fridge with lots of healthful items, such as crackers and peanut butter, fresh fruit, cereal or plain popcorn. That way, even if children dislike some of the foods, they'll end up eating something that's good for them.

Choose your battles. Forcing kids to choke down a whole plateful of food they hate will backfire. Mad, stressed-out kids are even less likely to want to eat.

Instead, take a deep breath and count to 10. Do whatever it takes to appear patient. And then calmly try to strike some compromises.

If children don't like anything on the table, have them choose the item that offends them least. If they don't like the looks of a new food, ask them to try at least one bite. Offer praise and encouragement.

Try and try again. It may take many tries before a food finally clicks with a kid, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. So keep offering new foods. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests introducing a new food at the start of a meal.

Be a good role model. If you shy away from fruits and veggies, your kids probably will too. Set a positive example by eating a broad range of healthful foods.

Get kids involved. Children are more likely to eat if they're vested in the meal, according to the academy. Involve kids in menu planning, grocery shopping, cooking and cleanup.

Create a mood. A happy, calm and relaxing setting will help children focus on eating. Give kids a five-minute warning before meals so that they can make the transition from playing to eating. Minimize distractions by turning off the television. Eat meals at the same time each day, and strive to have dinner as a family.

Switch gears. Making sure finicky kids get all the vitamins and minerals they need is challenging. But key nutrients are present in a variety of foods. If your child doesn't like one food, another can provide the nutrients he or she needs.

For example, children who don't like vegetables can get vitamin C from grapefruit, oranges, melons and strawberries.

Kids who don't drink milk can get calcium from low-fat cheeses; yogurt; dark green, leafy vegetables; and fortified orange juice.

And children who don't eat meat can get protein from beans and other legumes, dairy foods, eggs and peanut butter.

Don't give up. Keep trying and stay patient. Update your pediatrician about your child's progress, and report any concerns you have.

Reviewed 3/17/2023

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