Picky eaters. We all know at least one, have a child that’s proud to be one, or heck, might have a history of being one (gulp). Every child is unique, hence the approach to picky eating needs to be highly individualized, but here I will outline some general tips on how to establish healthy habits for picky eaters!
The Basic Rules
One of my favorite authors, Ellyn Satter (who happens to be a dietitian), provides excellent advice on the feeding of kids. The golden rule, according to Satter, is that parents are responsible for what food is provided and kids are responsible for determining how much and whether they will eat. Understanding and respecting this division of responsibility can support a healthy feeding relationship, can ease parental ‘hypochondriac-ism’, set your child up for developing healthy eating behaviors and develop a positive attitude towards eating, while also creating a well-nourished child.
Trust Their Ability to Regulate Food Intake
I work in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and witness the tiniest of humans taking the reigns in determining how much they will eat – and they do an impressive job. If these neonates can do it, why do we assume we must manipulate food intake for toddlers, children and even adolescents? Trust that healthy attitudes surrounding food will support proper intake.
Don’t Expect Consistency.
Some days they may have a ravenous appetite, other days they forget food is not just an optional painting medium. Respect this changing appetite, never forcing foods at times when the appetite isn’t excited.
Don’t be Alarmed When New Foods Get the Eyebrow Raise
Imagine you’ve been grabbing a banana with your morning coffee for the past week, and surprise, are handed a durian one day instead. Most of us can’t honestly say we’d be thrilled to dig into the unfamiliar replacement, and the cashier would likely get the eyebrow raise. So it’s no surprise that most kids need to be exposed to a new food about a dozen times before they will even consider testing it out. Don’t be afraid to gently and frequently offer unfamiliar foods, but be sure to serve them as part of a meal that features several healthy options.
Don’t Force Due to Fear
Kids will eat. If caregivers force (hence override) natural eating cues, then eating behaviors may worsen and negative attitudes surrounding foods may develop. Forcing likely causes the opposite of what you are intending – if you are withholding food due to concern about excessive intake, you will likely get a child that will take the opportunity to overconsume if given the chance. Alternatively, if you force food, the child may undereat at any opportunity possible.
Be a Good Role Model
You may have noticed some “familiar” behaviors displayed by your little ones. Turn up the awareness of your own behaviors towards foods. Eat a wide range of healthy foods yourself. Try new foods. Sit down at the table and turn off the TV and cell phone while focusing on your meal. Let the child help plan and prepare the meal, whether it’s washing produce or being responsible for selecting a new veggie to try.
Making deals and negotiating may seem like your genius strategy to escape the frustrating situation at-hand; however these are likely to make you miserable long term. The reward system should be avoided. Period. Stick to the division of responsibility.
If you have a concern about growth or nutritional adequacy of your child's diet, please schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider to address the matter. It may be useful to maintain a 3 day food diary to bring to the appointment so the provider can better assess your child's needs.