Q&A with a Registered Dietician

Along with sleep and behavior, meal time can be one of the stickiest issues (literally and figuratively!) for parents and children to deal with. We reached out to Sally Kuzemchak of Real Mom Nutrition for some advice and answers to commonly asked feeding questions. Sally is a registered dietician in Columbus, Ohio and has been published in ParentsPreventionSelfFamily Circle,  FitnessShapeHealth, Eating Well, Ladies’ Home Journal, and The Chicago Tribune. She is also the author of the Cooking Light cookbook, Dinnertime Survival Guide.

Are snacks (even healthy ones) a bad idea if we’re trying to get our child to eat more and more types of food at meal times?

Snacks are helpful for young children, since they have small bellies and may not eat enough at mealtimes to see them through the day. Snacks are also a great way to provide food groups and nutrients that kids may have missed at mealtime. But problems arise when kids are nibbling throughout the day–so they’re not coming to the table with an appetite, and that makes them less willing to try new foods or even eat much of what you’ve prepared. Another issue is when kids are snacking mostly on “fun foods” like crackers, cookies, and gummy fruit snacks, they’re taking in foods that supply a lot of sodium and sugar but few nutrients and also favoring those foods over what I call “meal foods” like vegetables, beans, and meats. I recommend serving mostly “meal foods” at snack time and keeping snacks at least 1-2 hours away from mealtimes.

What are some ways to motivate toddlers or pre-schoolers to try new foods?
I know it sounds boring but just keep serving them! Make those foods super-familiar to your kids–fixtures at snacks and mealtimes–because the more familiar your kids are with a food, the more willing they will be to eventually try it. You can certainly do something fun like a “try new foods” chart but only if your child is excited about it and a willing participant. If you’re wondering whether you should have a “Just One Bite” rule, here’s my take.
At what point do we let our 2-year-old decide that he’s had enough to eat at a meal even if he’s only taken a few bites?
Toddlers are notorious for skipping meals and not having the patience to stay put at mealtime. A few things that can save your sanity: Give your toddler very small, bite-sized portions of food at mealtime so he’s not overwhelmed. If dinner is his trouble spot, serve more of those dinner-type foods at lunch and snacktime. And save his plate for when he wants more–not as a way of punishing him, but just as a way of honoring his appetite. Finally, avoid giving him a “fun” snack after meals (like fruit-flavored yogurt or gummies) because he’ll have no incentive to eat the meal if he knows he’s getting a yogurt afterwards!
My husband and I were both raised to clean our plates and mind our manners at the table, which caused stress and anxiety about food and eating throughout childhood. We don’t want to repeat that with our kid, but we also don’t want her to eat with her hands until she’s ten or tell someone their cooking is yucky! Are there positive ways to encourage socially appropriate table manners?
“Clean your plate” is definitely an outdated and unhelpful rule, so I would recommend avoiding that in favor of allowing your child to eat the amount she wants. But I do think it’s reasonable to have some expectations at the table about manners. Here are 5 table manners every kid should know.
How do we determine if our child’s picky eating habits are actually a problem that we need expert help for? (i.e. when does pickiness cross the line from annoying to unhealthy) What help is available for children (kindergarten age or younger) with real feeding issues?
Some red flags that your child’s eating is more than garden variety pickiness are: eating very few foods, frequently becoming upset (such as acting sad or fearful) at mealtime, and losing weight and/or falling off her growth curve. In that case, you can talk to your child’s pediatrician for next steps. I’m a big fan of the book Helping Your Child With Extreme Picky Eating, which is written by a doctor who specializes in feeding. You can also find help from a feeding therapist, but I would get a recommendation from a trusted friend or family member and do your research before choosing one since there are different approaches therapists take.
Sally has a free Picky Eater Problem Solver e-mail course to help your kids become happier, healthier eaters. You can sign up for the free course on her website.

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