Structured meals and snack times can help introduce kids to new foods

Navigating the tricky waters of picky eating calls for creativity. So what do you get when you take one hot dog bun, add a scoop of sloppy Joe meat, and prop two mini-pretzel sticks along side? A "Sloppy Canoe" that Reynoldsburg mom Lauren Mayes uses to ride those waters.

Every day Mayes tackles mealtimes with five children, four of whom are under the age of 6. Other than a petite 2-year-old who prefers croutons and PediaSure to just about anything else, Mayes said most of her kids are fairly good eaters.

Her secret - a set schedule for meals and snacks, and her refusal to be a short-order cook: "They don't always get what they like, they get what's served."

When targeting picky eaters, registered licensed dietician Julia Hansel said Mayes hits the bull's eye: "The 0 to 5 stage is about setting up the relationship with food. It's not about what the child eats, but how you go about setting the structure."

Hansel is the director of education at the Franklin Park Conservatory and also the mom of a 7-year-old. She stresses setting a daily structure of three widely-spaced meals and two snacks.

If a picky eater opts for just a few things at mealtime, or maybe nothing at all, Hansel said not to panic: "Your child may walk away from the table without eating anything and this may happen for a day or two, but there's never been a case where a young child has purposely starved themselves!"

Hansel promises children eventually come around, understanding this is their only opportunity to eat. She stresses the importance of establishing this structure early.

Hansel suggested trying only one new food per meal and introducing unfamiliar foods while grocery shopping or gardening.

"The more you get kids, especially young kids, involved in food beyond the dinner plate, the more likely they are to eat a wider variety of food and not be frightened by new food," Hansel said.

Mayes said her kids "think that some meals are more fun than others, like snack time. I take advantage of that to get the things in them that they need."

She added that if her kids eat fruits or vegetables between meals, it takes a little pressure off at dinner time.

Of course, if you occasionally have to dip into your bag of tricks and pull out a Sloppy Canoe, go for it. "If it looks fun," said Mayes, "they'll eat it!"