It happens to the best of us: Despite all our efforts to plan, grocery shop, and cook up a nutritious meal for our kids, sometimes the only thing they'll agree to eat is something white or from a package. Having a picky eater at the table can be frustrating at best and worrisome at worst: How do you know if your child’s getting all the nutrients she needs for healthy development?
To answer this and more pressing questions that parents of picky eaters commonly ask, we spoke with pediatric specialist Murray Clarke, D.Hom, N.D., whose 20 years of clinical experience in children's nutrition led him to found Childlife Essentials in 2000 and formulate the first complete line of nutritional supplements for infants and children.
1. First of all, is there anything I can do to actually prevent my child from becoming a picky eater?
Clarke puts it simply: "Eliminate sugar from their diet." A parent himself, he also knows that's much easier said than done and adds, "the best answer I can give is set an example and eat organic, clean, whole foods as much as possible, and try to avoid anything processed. The artificial colorings, flavors, sweeteners in processed foods are where their taste buds start going askew."
2. So you're saying that my own eating habits affect my kid's?
"Totally. As their parents, we're their role model for everything, including their eating habits," Clarke says, "and that goes for emotional eating and snacking, too. If you're not eating clean, your kid won't even know that clean food exists."
3. Are frequent snacks a good idea, or will it just make them more picky during dinner?
"Snacks are necessary, especially as a child gets a little older," says Clarke. "They're in school, using a lot of energy—they need snacks during the day and when they come home. Snacks are a part of the diet, but you just have to go with snacks that are balanced."
Being choosy with their snacks in between meals allows kids to build up an appetite for healthy foods. "If they want something sweet, avoid high-sugar or processed snacks, and try fruit instead. Or maybe it's cheese, turkey jerky, nuts, or some sort of protein," he adds. "That way it won't disrupt their blood sugar."
4. What can I do to help my picky kid try new foods?
Again, Clarke recommends making sure that you or other family members set a good example by eating a variety of healthy foods. And start early, beginning around 6 months; introduce new tastes, especially green vegetables.
"If they start eating clean foods at 6, 7 months, then you're going to get a longer time period before they start getting picky," Clarke explains. "You see a lot of kids starting to get picky in their first year, but you can prevent that up until 4 years so that they're open to trying new foods regularly."
5. What are the big nutrients to keep an eye out for that kids often don't get enough of?
The essential vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids are the building blocks of everything, says Clarke, and experts agree that getting certain nutrients early on is important because the first few years of a child's life are critical for development: vitamin C, vitamins D, calcium, magnesium, iron, and long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids such as omega-3 fish oils, which have DHA for the brain. "Based on the research we have now, it's very clear that over 50% of children and adults are deficient in vitamin D."
6. How can I tell if my kid's picky eating is actually affecting her overall nourishment?
"Without extensive blood work, there's no easy way to tell," says Clarke. "It comes down to being aware of the essential vitamins and minerals, and where we get them in our food, and then monitoring that as closely as possible so we can gauge whether they're getting that full spectrum and a balanced, nutrient-dense diet. But it's tough to ensure your child is getting that full spectrum every day, and so that's when you start thinking about supplementing."
7. Should I be giving my kids supplements?
"In the last 30, 40 years, our whole environment has changed," says Clarke. "The mineral content of our fruits and veggies has shifted, we have more processed and junk foods, we have an environment that's adding a toxic burden to children that no other generation has ever faced. All of those things mean that a child growing up in today's world needs a lot more support, and even if a child is eating perfectly, still they might not be getting everything they need."
Supplementing can be a way to ensure that they're getting all the nutrients they need. Based on over two decades of pediatric nutrition research and clinical work, Clarke identified four key nutrients for growing children and formulated Childlife Essentials' Core 4, all of which are non-GMO; made without any artificial colors, flavors, or sweeteners; and are free of the top eight allergens:
- Multi Vitamin & Mineral: A formula that contains all 16 essential vitamins, plus the primary minerals, for growth and development.
- Liquid Vitamin C: A yummy antioxidant supplement for environmental protection to help reduce the impact of toxins such as heavy metals, plastics, chemicals, and pollutants.
- Pure DHA: Naturally berry-flavored softgels for fatty acid DHA that supports healthy brain growth and function.
- Vitamin D3 Drops: A liquid formula that helps support the immune system.
8. So if my kid refuses to eat her dinner tonight, what's the best way to respond to nip this in the bud?
Keep offering the rejected meal, but don't force them—mealtimes shouldn't be a time for fighting, and kids will eat when they're hungry. "I'm old school in that I'll hold out instead of bending and giving them whatever they want to eat. For me, if you don't want to eat something good, then there's not really another choice."
"Some parents ask, should I deny my kid dessert if she won't eat her dinner? That's a slippery slope because then you'll start bribing them for everything. If they learn they can manipulate you there, they'll manipulate you in other ways, not related to diet!"
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.