Solution Emerges for COVID-Based Child Obesity and Picky Eaters

physician and trained chef julia nordgren, md, offers advice and tips on expanding kids' flavor palettes

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

During the pandemic, the rates of childhood obesity cases and number of picky eaters are up. Easy access to snacks and busy days balancing work and family at home share the blame. Physician and chef, Dr. Julia Nordgren shared tips to help.

Teenage boy eating carrots on couch
A highly effective step in preventing additional weight gain during the pandemic is to take stock of what types of snacks are available in your home’s kitchen. Photo By sirtravelalot / Shutterstock

Remote learning has been implemented in hopes of slowing the coronavirus spread. Unfortunately, that also takes away many schoolchildren’s opportunities for movement and exercise throughout the day. Additionally, since kids are learning from home, a kitchen full of snacks is never far away. This has caused a rise in childhood obesity throughout 2020.

Dr. Julia Nordgren, Pediatric Lipid and Obesity Specialist at Palo Alto Medical Foundation, spoke with us about the childhood obesity spike and how to fight back. In the first part of our interview, which can be read here, she identified specific causes of the issue and provided ideas for foods to stock at home. For the second part, we talked about how to get healthy foods into the hands and tummies of sufferers of pediatric obesity and picky eaters in general—and whether the term “picky eater” has run its course.

Playing to Your Strengths

Dr. Nordgren’s first piece of advice to successfully implement healthier foods at the dinner table is for families to start with what they know and use it as a jump-off point.

“I find that the things that kids can really adapt to are the ones that families feel successful at creating and can repeat without a lot of challenge or difficulty, and those are the foods that are well-received,” she said. “I think the most successful recipes are kind of a spin-off of something that’s a little familiar but where the ingredients are a higher quality.

“So that would be something like cauliflower tacos, where you have this really familiar, delicious base of a taco mix but with the added nutrient density of beautiful, healthy cauliflower that’s diced or cut very finely and put into the taco mix, and black beans and vegetables and brown rice with those beautiful spices—that’s the kind of recipe that works really well.”

She also recommended simple things like a roasted broccoli in olive oil, salt, and pepper. This takes a well-known vegetable and adds dimension and flavor to it. Dr. Nordgren said she understood the perception that food is “either healthy and tolerable or unhealthy and super delicious,” but from a culinary perspective, that dichotomy is far from reality.

“We have this psychology that treating kids to a meal means fast food, or that a treat is something very sweet or indulgent and fatty, and it really doesn’t have to be like that,” she said.

Starting with a familiar meal concept like tacos and elevating the ingredients to something more healthy is a good first step in the right direction.

Not as Picky as They Seem

Dr. Nordgren said that she often finds parents stuck in a rut because they have a so-called “picky eater” in the house. However, it’s not always the case.

“I think the label of ‘picky’ is not useful and that can become an identifier that’s negative in terms of eating,” she said. “In terms of being healthy and eating in a way that prevents weight gain, the most important thing is eating a large quantity of vegetables and fruits.

“To get there, just increase the quantity of the fruits and vegetables they already eat. If they only like four [different fruits or vegetables], serve those every day. Don’t be afraid to serve a lot of those.”

She also said that when it comes time to introduce other fruits and vegetables, pressure doesn’t work, nor does an entire plate of something they don’t know or don’t like. According to Dr. Nordgren, the less pressure a child feels and the more they feel in control of eating or not eating, the more often they’ll end up trying a small amount of a new food on their plate.

She also suggested being respectful of the child’s likes and dislikes but establishing the standard that there will be some amount of vegetables on the plate at every meal. During the cooking process, involving kids in the tasting and seasoning process helps them feel engaged and more likely to eat as well.

Tiny Foods for Tiny Hands

One of the most important lessons is to be conscious of what type of food environment we create for snacking in our households.

“We can’t change right now that we can’t go out a lot; we can’t change that there’s no soccer practice, [but] we can change which foods we bring into the house,” she said. “If what seems to be problematic is that your child is eating chips when they’re on a Zoom call and don’t notice that they get to the bottom of the bag, no judgment there—that’s what I would do—but just stop putting chips in the house.”

The other side of that coin is to consider which foods kids are able to get to—and, critically, which foods don’t need preparation on the kids’ parts. Dr. Nordgren said that when it comes to healthy foods, children will rarely grab a healthy food and take the time to wash it, chop it up, and eat it.

“I have this Field of Dreams mantra that is ‘If you slice it, they will eat it,'” she said. “So I do a lot of slicing and dicing and putting out plates and handing it over. I take those big apples and I over-slice them and I’ll put six slices on each plate. By and large, just realizing that it takes more effort and it takes putting it out and presenting, you’ll have a lot better success getting your kids to eat them.”

Finally, Dr. Nordgren referred to “choice architecture.” She said that if she’s making pasta and salad, she never puts the salad out alongside the pasta because the salad will get ignored. She brings the kids to the table and puts the salad down while the pasta is still cooking, so by the time the pasta is ready, the kids already have stomachs full of veggies.

“Take advantage of hungry kids; hungry kids eat vegetables,” she said with a laugh.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Dr. Julia Nordgren, MD, contributed to this article. Dr. Nordgren is a Pediatric Lipid and Obesity Specialist at Palo Alto Medical Foundation. She obtained her medical degree from Dartmouth Medical School.