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Many Parents Cook Special Meals for Little Picky Eaters: Poll
  • Posted April 22, 2024

Many Parents Cook Special Meals for Little Picky Eaters: Poll

Parents too often wave the white flag when it comes to young picky eaters, a new survey finds.

Three out of five parents say they're willing to play personal chef and cobble up a separate meal for a child who balks at the family dinner, according to a national poll from the University of Michigan.

This often leads to the kids munching something less healthy, said Dr. Susan Woolford, a pediatrician with the University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children's Hospital.

Parents should instead greet such obstinance with a shrug, Woolford said.

“Rather than allowing the child to choose an alternate menu, parents should provide a balanced meal with at least one option that their child is typically willing to eat,” Woolford said in a hospital news release.

“Then if their child chooses not to eat, parents should not worry as this will not cause healthy children any harm and they will be more likely to eat the options presented at the next meal,” Woolford added.

Parents' biggest mealtime challenge is getting a healthy diet into a picky eater, according to results from the University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health.

But the desire to make sure a preschool or elementary-aged child eats a balanced, nutritional diet often leads to strategies that backfire, poll results suggest.

“The preschool and elementary age is an important time to establish healthy eating patterns,” said Woolford, who co-directs the poll. “Yet parents' concern about whether their child is eating enough or if they're getting the nutrients they need may lead them to adopt practices that actually sabotage their efforts to get kids to have healthy eating habits in the short- and long-term.”  

For example, one out of eight parents swing the opposite way and require their kids to eat everything on their plate, the poll found.

Another half say their children must try some of everything, and a little less than a third withhold dessert if a meal isn't finished.

Such tactics can encourage kids to stuff themselves rather than eat until they're comfortably full, Woolford said.

“Requiring children to eat everything on their plate, or withholding dessert unless all other foods are eaten, can lead to overconsumption, especially if portion sizes are too large for the child's age,” Woolford said.

Portion size is key to lowering the risk of childhood obesity, but it's difficult for parents to “right-size” a child portion, poll results show.

Nearly 70% of parents polled give their child a portion that's slightly less than adults, while fewer let their child choose how much to take, use predetermined portions from the package or give them the same portion as adults.

Woolford recommends a “parents provide, and the child decides” approach. Parents are responsible for providing healthy options, and then children select which foods they will eat and the amount they want to consume.

There also are other sources, like the “MyPlate” guide offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that can help parents balance the major food groups and estimate appropriate portion sizes for the whole family, Woolford said.

Only a third of parents polled think the standard American diet is healthy, compared to half who rank the Mediterranean diet higher in nutritional value.

However, few have tried alternative diets for their child, the poll found.

“Parents may recognize the standard diet in the U.S. includes high amounts of saturated fats, added sugars, sodium and refined carbohydrates, which can generate an excess intake of calories beyond nutritional needs and contribute to health problems,” Woolford said.

“However, despite this recognition and evidence suggesting that other diet options may help avoid many illnesses, only about 9% have tried the Mediterranean diet for their children and fewer have tried giving their children a vegetarian diet,” Woolford said.

Nearly all parents said they've tried at lease one strategy to get their child to eat vegetables as part of a healthy diet.

These tactics have ranged from serving vegetables every day, fixing veggies how their child prefers, trying vegetables the kid hasn't had before or letting their youngster pick out vegetables at the grocery story.

“Parents should try to include children in meal decisions, avoid pressuring food consumption and provide a variety of healthy options at each meal so kids feel more control,” Woolford said.

Most parents are trying to buy healthy food for their kids, the survey found. More than half said they limit foods with added sugars and processed foods.

But it's tough to identify unhealthy foods, Woolford said. Foods marketed or packaged as healthy can still contain added sugars or unhealthy levels of salt and fat.

Parents should focus on nutrition labels and ingredient lists on the back of a package rather than the marketing on the front, Woolford said. This will help them suss out foods with too much sugar, salt and fat.

In fact, including kids in this supermarket detective work can set them up to be healthy eaters for themselves in the future, Woolford said.

“Have them help in the process of choosing the healthiest options, not ones that necessarily directly advertise to children, but foods that they are willing to try that are lower in sugar, fat and salt,” Woolford said.

“Spend most of the time in the produce section and try to make it fun by maybe selecting new options from different parts of the world that they haven't tried before,” she added.

More information

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has more on healthy eating for kids.

SOURCE: University of Michigan, news release, April 22, 2024

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