expert advice MORE
Q: How do I get my six-year-old to eat more of a variety of foods? She would be happy to live on chicken tenders, pizza, and hot dogs. I remember my mom forcing me to eat things that I did not like and I swore that I would never do that to my child. My husband thinks that she shouldn't be given a choice at dinner; whatever the family eats, she should eat. Can you give me some advice?
A: There is no one "right" answer to your question. As a pediatrician, I can tell you that healthy children will not starve themselves, and you can feel comfortable saying no to requests for specific foods. Eventually, your child will eat because she becomes hungry, and you don't want to indulge poor nutritional habits by allowing her to eat only the high-fat foods that she likes. It's important to include enough calcium, vitamins, and other nutrients in the foods your daughter eats, and there needs to be some variety.
Children need to have some choices about what they eat. I think that blindly giving commands to "clean your plate" doesn't teach children to know when they're hungry and when they are full. It doesn't teach them how to make proper food choices when they are away from your table. Given the alarming rise in both obesity and eating disorders in children in this country, I think it's important to give a child some element of control over her food intake.
My advice is to prepare healthful meals that you approve of, and always try to include one dish (whether the main course or a side dish) that you know your daughter likes. Serve smaller portions of the things she doesn't like, and require that she taste everything. In this way, she will learn to keep trying new things even if she "knows" she doesn't like it. Kids' tastes do change, and something that she dislikes now may become appealing to her in the near future. After tasting everything, if she does not want to eat the new foods, don't force her. I think it's reasonable to have a couple of agreed-upon standby items available in the house that anyone who doesn't like the meal can eat instead: Yogurt, bagels, fruit, and raw veggies (carrots and cucumbers, for example) are all good choices.
More on: Expert Advice
Shari Nethersole is a physician at Children's Hospital, Boston, and an instructor in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She graduated from Yale University and Harvard Medical School, and did her internship and residency at Children's Hospital, Boston. As a pediatrician, she tries to work with parents to identify and address their concerns.