Pleasing the Picky Eater

So what if your kid eats her cereal without milk or hates every green vegetable? We have easy ways to get around common kid hang-ups.

She refuses to drink milk.

Picky Eaters: 3 Ways To Encourage Healthy Eating

    Kid eating cereal Monica Buck

    What's the Big Deal? Milk offers four nutrients -- calcium, magnesium, potassium, and vitamin D -- that help kids' bodies and bones grow strong. Getting enough now means better bone mass in adulthood. Research from Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center found that women who were milk avoiders as kids had 6 percent lower bone-mineral content and twice the risk of fractures as those who drank it during childhood. What's more, preliminary research suggests that drinking milk may help kids maintain a healthy weight.

    Work Around It: You can meet your child's calcium needs with other foods and drinks. A 1- to 3-year-old can get her daily calcium allowance with 4 ounces of yogurt plus a slice of reduced-fat cheddar cheese and 1/2 cup of calcium-fortified orange juice. Kids ages 4 to 8 will meet theirs with a bowl of fortified oatmeal plus a piece of part-skim string cheese, 3/4 cup of fortified orange juice, 6 ounces of low-fat yogurt, and a whole-grain English muffin. Yogurt and cheese also contain potassium and magnesium, so those nutrients are covered. Vitamin D, which helps your child's body absorb calcium, is harder to come by because it's found only in a few other foods, such as fish and eggs. So if your child doesn't drink milk, consider giving her a kids' vitamin D supplement of 400 IU daily.

      She loathes practically every vegetable.

      What's the Big Deal? Veggies are very low-cal and packed with healthy plant compounds as well as immune-boosting nutrients like vitamins A and C. According to new research from two children's hospitals, preschoolers who ate a diet low in fried foods and rich in dark-green and deep-yellow vegetables such as broccoli, carrots, and sweet potatoes not only had a lower fat mass but also a higher bone mass than those who didn't, possibly because the potassium in them acts as a bone builder.

      Work Around It: Focus on the veggies your child does like. Even though it's technically a fruit, the USDA counts tomato salsa and marinara sauce toward your kid's veggie servings. (Toddlers and preschoolers need about 2 cups daily while 5- to 8-year-olds require roughly 2 1/2 to 3.) Potatoes are another well-liked option.

      But keep offering all veggies in a no-pressure way. Routinely put them on her plate or serve them family-style at the dinner table, but don't make a big deal if she doesn't eat any. Or set out a veggie appetizer with low-fat dip right before dinner, when kids are really hungry. In a new study from Penn State University, 3- to 5-year-olds polished off more carrots when they were served before lunch rather than during the meal. If she's still not budging, pick up the slack with fruit: Spinach is high in vitamin A, but so are dried apricots, cantaloupes, and mangoes. If she won't eat C-rich green beans or broccoli, offer strawberries, citrus fruit, or pineapple. They're all great choices for a snack or dessert.

        Proven Strategies for Picky Eaters

          He insists his sandwiches be on white bread.

          Heart shaped sandwiches Monica Buck

          What's the Big Deal? Whole-wheat flour has 25 percent more protein, 78 percent more fiber, and 93 percent more vitamin E than the refined kind used to make white sandwich bread. "The extra fiber helps prevent constipation in kids, and along with the protein will help them stay fuller," says Joanne Slavin, Ph.D., professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. And the vitamin E? In a study of kids 8 to 13, those who ate whole grains were 54 percent less likely to have asthma -- possibly because whole grains have antioxidants like vitamin E that may prevent airway inflammation.

          Work Around It: The government's Dietary Guidelines say only half of your kid's grain servings need to be whole. If he won't relinquish his favorite bread, balance it out with brown rice at dinner or whole-grain cereal for breakfast. "Try to get him used to the taste of whole wheat by making a 'zebra' with one slice of white bread and another of whole wheat," suggests Elisa Zied, R.D., author of Nutrition at Your Fingertips, and mom of two.

            He squirts ketchup on everything.

            Dipping carrots in ketchup Monica Buck

            What's the Big Deal? The typical ketchup is sugary and salty. Each tablespoon has a teaspoon of sugar and about as much sodium as a handful of potato chips. But that same squirt adds only a reasonable 15 extra calories, and "for a lot of kids, ketchup allows them to expand the variety of foods they'll eat," says Jill Castle, R.D., owner of Pediatric Nutrition of Green Hills, in Nashville.

            Work Around It: Look for brands like Heinz No Salt, which doesn't have sodium, or Hunts No Salt Added, which is also sweetened with regular sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup. Then be generous about how much ketchup your kid can put on veggies, fish, or other healthy foods -- the benefits trump a little extra salt and sugar. But insist on just a squirt for foods, which your kid would probably eat plain. Experiment with other toppings too. "I put a small amount of natural maple syrup or agave nectar on bitter-tasting veggies like cauliflower and brussels sprouts," says Victoria Shanta Retelny, R.D., a dietitian in Chicago.

              Originally published in the November 2010 issue of Parents magazine.

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