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Samantha Hamby, registered dietitian at Rogers Behavioral Health–Nashville , offers some guidance for parents and anyone who cares for children.
If your child has obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or irregular eating habits, he or she may be an extra-picky eater, preferring to stay away from entire groups of food because they believe something bad may happen, their physical appearance may be drastically altered by eating them, or they simply just don’t like it. As with many children, getting them to eat a single pea may turn into outright turmoil at the dinner table.
Making sure you and your child have positive attitudes about food helps ensure your child will have a healthy relationship with all types of food. “We tend to categorize food as good or bad,” says Hamby. “If you’re eating a brownie and talking about how you shouldn’t be eating it or how many pounds you’ve gained, the child is listening and taking that in. Even if you aren’t talking about how the child is going to gain weight.”
Talking about food neutrally and not categorizing food groups are good approaches. You can also try talking about the different colors of food on the child’s plate or how they’ve seen their favorite cartoon character eating these foods.
You are perhaps your child’s biggest role model for eating. “If you’re telling your child the importance of eating broccoli, but you aren’t eating it, it’s going to be more difficult for the child to want to eat it.” So, sit down with your child, eat with them and be present in the moment because children benefit from the social rewards mealtime offers.
Food’s various colors provide different vitamins and minerals to keep developing bodies healthy. “When children have a varied diet, they’re also expanding their palate and get to enjoy food significantly more because they’re tasting new flavors,” says Hamby.
To increase variety, a child has to feel safe tasting unfamiliar foods. “Give the child something they’re comfortable eating and then give them a small amount of something they’ve never tried,” says Hamby. “It can be as small as a grain of rice, or a new side to a familiar main course you know they love.”
Hamby recommends serving the same new food up to 10 days in a row. As the child feels more comfortable eating a small portion of the new food, they may start eating larger portions of it.
Ellyn Satter, a widely respected nutrition consult and author, explains parents can control the “what, when and where of feeding,” but children are going to decide whether to eat, and how much. Offering your child new foods during the least stressful times of the day is helpful, but if they simply don’t want to try the food—don’t force it. “Trying to force a child to eat a particular food will likely backfire because the child will feel pressured,” says Hamby.
On the flipside, don’t turn food into a reward. “We don’t want children to think if they get ice cream, that means they’ve been good,” says Hamby. “Then they may think the more ice cream they get, the better-behaved they are being.”
If a child you know needs professional help with OCD or an eating disorder, request a free, confidential screening today .
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