Let me start off this post with a disclaimer. I do not think that we should call children picky eaters, at least not to their faces. Or at all 🙂 Labeling a child like that can really in grain in them that this is who they are- a child who doesn’t like many foods, especially those healthy foods we want them to eat. I write about picky eaters because that’s what first comes to mind when your child pushes that bowl of soup aside or throws the carrots off the table- that he’s being picky! Yes, some of their actions are based on behaviors and these behaviors are driving you bonkers. But, we want to change our mindset about what a picky eater is- a child that for whatever reason, usually not to just make you mad, has decided that certain foods are safe and others are not safe to eat. Often we try to insist on new foods and in large amounts when your child may have only a few preferred foods and this leads to meltdowns at mealtimes. So, I have some suggestions that involve increasing your child’s positive experiences with food and ability to connect with food outside of mealtime so that eventually, he allows for a few peas on the plate, and then with time a whole lot of peas and yeah, maybe that steamed asparagus stalk too.
1. Take your child shopping. Some days grocery shopping is more like go-cart racing as you frantically make your way through the aisles to get home in time to make dinner. On the days though when you have a little extra time, use it as an opportunity to teach your child about new foods and explore. Stroll around the grocery store and pick up, smell, tap on the food, and talk about it. Talk about fruits and vegetables like the super heroes they are and all that they do for our bodies. Ask your child if you should name the broccoli King Broccoli or Super Broccoli. Grocery store time can be a great time to connect with and educate your child about food.
2. Play with your food. Outside of mealtime, have children play with their food. Why would you do that? Why would you waste food? As babies, children develop their comfort around food through touch. First the hand gets the sense of how an object feels and then the food (or the baby shoe) goes into their mouth. Some children have not had this input. They need to have the food at a safe enough distance to explore and touch (many times) before they’re willing to put it in their mouths. in order to feel comfortable around food. Make faces using a few different vegetables carrot stick smiles and grape eyes. Drive cars through chia seed pudding (the chia seeds you bought in bulk from Costco, because no, you don’t need to spend a ton of money each time you do this.) Remember, your child doesn’t need to eat these foods. It’s just to offer exposure.
3. Get plenty of exercise. If children are spending too much time in sedentary positions, time on the i-pad or in front of the television, they may have difficulty getting their appetites going. Before a meal, try taking your child to the park or if you have the space in your home, toss a ball back and forth. If you can get your child to a state in which they’ve exerted some effort, they’re calmer (but not totally exhausted) then you might get better results at the table.
4. Read about it. My parents tell me that I was quite a picky eater when I was younger, although I don’t recall ever saying no to anything. I do, however, remember them reading me the book, “Gregory the Terrible Eater” many times. It’s about a goat whose parents can’t get him to chomp down on boots or eat buttons. Gregory, instead, wants to eat fruits and vegetables, much to his parents dismay. The book ends with Gregory and his parents compromising. Gregory will eat some food from the junk yard mixed in with his favorites. There are some fun books out there, “I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato” Also, for children with more challenging feeding skills, social stories around food may be appropriate. A social story basically describes how children can navigate a challenging situation in easy to understand language. It’s a very non-judgmental, straight forward approach. You can even create your own social stories. Also, are goats really known for eating everything?
5. Praise your child’s effort for any new attempts. Remember what it was like when you were a child and that at times, there were foods you didn’t want to eat. Even now, if another adult were to prepare something that you didn’t quite like, it would be tempting to fake a stomach ache. Remember that our words have power. We want to avoid labeling our child by their actions. Instead, let’s look at any effort that they’ve put forth and praise that. “Wow, thank you for helping dad choose some healthy foods for our family at the store. I see you put spinach in the cart.” “Look at that effort you made smelling that orange and holding it in your hands.” Again, look for the positive things that they have done and build momentum. It’s not about them being compliant or picky. It’s about the effort that they make to do difficult things. For some children, eating a salad with all of the different textures and flavors is a huge achievement. It’s good to recognize when they make strides, no matter how small they are and focus on the effort they’ve made rather than labeling them.
Signs of a Feeding Issue and when to speak further with your doctor about seeing a feeding speciailist (a speech-language pathologist or occupational therapist):
- Dietary restriction your child eats less than twenty different foods
- Tantrums/becomes very upset when offered new foods and will not tolerate new foods on their plate
- Refuses certain food textures completely
- Meal times are often stressful and your child does not typically eat what other family members eat
- Lack of growth and weight gain
Please remember, this is not a substitute for healthcare advice. If you have any concerns around your child’s feeding, please speak with your pediatrician.