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Ask the Nutritionist: My kids are picky eaters — what do I do?

In her weekly column, licensed nutritionist Nonie De Long breaks down what to do if your kids are picky eaters and how not to make eating vegetables a yucky experience
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Dear Nutritionist:

I have a problem getting my kids to eat vegetables. They’re very picky.

They will eat meat, potatoes, rice, white bread, and fruit, but they won’t eat any cooked veggies except carrots.

I’m worried about their nutrition and wondered if you have some ideas for me.


Dear Worried:

As the parent of a very picky eater I empathize with your struggle. You want to ensure your family has good eating habits, which honestly is tough for busy parents today.

A lot of families I’ve worked with allow the kids to choose the menu, often cooking two or three dinners per night to please everyone! To my mind, this is not unlike allowing the kids to make the family household budget. It’s not going to have a good outcome.

But there’s a lot you can do with picky eaters to entice them to eat vegetables — or whatever food you feel they’re lacking.

I say entice because punishers may create a negative association that stays with the child forever. Having to sit at the table all night and gag down cold broccoli hardly does anything for one’s lifelong appreciation of broccoli — or green vegetables by association — which ultimately is the point.

And a full-out war about eating at the dinner table hardly does anything for anyone’s digestion.

A good plan has to motivate the child to try the desired foods, a little at a time, to allow him or her to adapt and start to appreciate them.

And our taste buds do adapt. It apparently takes 10 times trying something new before the taste buds can really discern if they like that food or not. At first it’s just foreign: the look, the texture, the smell, the taste. And some people, children included, balk at anything new and unknown!

However, as the food becomes more familiar through repetition it can become more pleasant.

During that time it’s best not to make it a big issue — or amount. It’s just a spoonful of something new on the side of the plate, for each family member to try.

And if the adults aren’t willing to try the new foods and be positive about the experience, you don’t stand a chance to get the kids to!

You might make this a family game where everyone can pick something weird and wild (starting with vegetables) and you pick up and prep a bit for the whole family to try.

After enough exposure, most foods will often become less offensive to the taste buds, particularly if you ratchet down the salt, sugar, and butter in your daily diet, which override our taste for other foods.

As long as we regularly consume over-sweet, over-salted, buttery foods we aren’t as likely to deviate from that to enjoy other flavour profiles. In a way you could say these tastes are both addictive and restrictive.

But when children are exposed in a happy, positive setting to a variety of foods — with no emotional attachment to the outcome, and with no white comfort foods to fall back on or snack on later — they are free to allow their palate to expand.

If, however, they can refuse dinner then snack all night on junk or bread — or worse, have mom create another dinner to suit them — these children will likely be nutritionally deficient and finicky for life.

Sometimes, as parents, we have the wisdom to see that the most loving answer is, “No.”

I’m also not adverse to hiding veggies in foods. I regularly spice up my meatloaf with shredded kale, peppers, herbs, onions, and carrots. This works in burgers, pasta sauce, and meatballs, too. Just be sure the veggies are shredded fine so the texture doesn’t put them off.

I mash root veggies with potatoes and add a bit of palm sugar and butter to make my nieces eat them.

And I drizzle a little honied nut butter on the celery plate.

Play to their tastes. When diced well, kids will even accept (and like) sauteed kale in their Kraft Dinner, in my experience.

Two other really wonderful ways to engage kids to appreciate vegetables and new foods is to get them interested in gardening and in cooking.

Growing fresh vegetables is extremely joyous and sensual — even for children. They love seeing their peppers turn from a seedling, to a plant, to blossoms, to buds, to beautiful shiny peppers.

They delight in opening fresh peas from the pod and watching them roll out. Who doesn’t?! Especially when that came from your garden!

Even if you’ve only a small flower bed, you can plant beans, cherry tomatoes and some sugar peas — a good start to help kids experience the joy of fresh food.

Alternately, farming programs where you can visit and pick your produce, or farmers markets help kids to get in on the excitement of fresh food.

And don’t feel that you need for force cooked veggies if the kids prefer raw. There is no nutritional benefit to cooking most veggies, so if they prefer them raw you can do crudites with a nice, homemade dip or wonderful salads. This keeps food fun and easy, too.

And engaging kids in cooking is a fabulous way to entice them into the love of food. What they can do depends on their ages, but I recall hearing a chef speak of getting his kids to help him cook when they visited him and how it became a wonderful bonding ritual for his family.

Cooking classes and school farm-to-table programs where kids make their own pizza using farm-fresh veggies are great ways to initiate this.

Be creative. And remember, 10 times before anything new becomes the new family staple! So don’t give up just yet!

Nonie Nutritionista 

Nonie De Long is a registered orthomolecular nutritionist with a clinic in Bradford West Gwillimbury, where she offers holistic, integrative health care for physical and mental-health issues.