Chew on This: How to Help a Picky Eater
Of all the daily challenges that parenting a young child brings, dealing with a picky eater can be one of the most frustrating. After all, eating seems like such a natural process to most adults, that it can be confusing when a child doesn’t approach food with the same instincts as we do. Not to mention, as parents, we find great pleasure in knowing that our children are happy and healthy, which includes making sure they are receiving the appropriate nutrition.
It’s not all that surprising that some children try to exert control over what they eat. In general, they have very little control over their lives. As adults, we tell them what to wear, where they are going, and how they are supposed to behave. Children seek opportunities to control what is happening in their environment, and eating is one thing that is easy for them to demonstrate power over. So, instead of engaging in a struggle, consider these tips to make mealtimes more enjoyable.
- Minimize Media- While it can be easier to let children watch television or play with their iPads during meals, it can also be a distraction (and something you don’t want them to become dependent on). In the midst of carpools and chaos, try finding time to eat dinner together and reconnect as a family. Talk about the highs and lows of your days and discuss upcoming family plans.
- Check Yourself- Children pick up on our stress, tension and anxiety. If you are worried about your child’s food intake or are rushed to get them out the door, they will immediately sense it. Try not to count bites, measure ounces, or hurry them to their next activity. This will contribute to your overall stress level, and may make your child more anxious as well.
- Make Meals Fun- There was a reason our parents used to take our spoon and pretend it was an airplane flying food into our mouths. When we are having fun, we are more likely to want to engage in an activity. Ditch the “don’t play with your food mentality” and allow your child to explore and investigate new items. Create games with food like setting up a taste test, trying different dips, cutting foods into exciting shapes (i.e., a rocket ship or car) and making up silly names.
- Solicit Help- Let your child help create a menu, shop for food, cook and set the table. If you have a green thumb, you could also have them help you plant a garden and pick the fruits and vegetables. Once they have invested in the process, they are more likely to want to taste the outcome.
- Start Young and Go Slow- Children thrive on consistency, repetition and predictability. If you start offering healthy options at a young age, children will come to see these types of foods as a staple in their diet. Since modifying preferred foods may be difficult for children to adapt to, try introducing new foods and making changes gradually over time. For example, if your child insists on eating only spiral pasta with cheese sauce for dinner, consider first changing the shape of the pasta, then ultimately varying the type of sauce.
- Be Self-Aware- Model healthy eating habits and be aware of the messages you send your children about dieting. If they hear you constantly talking about eliminating carbohydrates or watching your fat intake, children may begin to cut certain foods as well. Talk about food in terms of making healthy choices that keep them strong and help them grow.
- Consider the Sensory Experience- Mealtimes can be overwhelming for some children given the smells, sights, tastes, and sounds that accompany them. Be sensitive to children who present with aversions to these sensory aspects, but also try to help them explore and discover the differences in each food. Many children develop preferences to various textures of foods, such as crunchy vs. soft, while others may avoid different tastes, such as sweet over salty. Take note of what they are avoiding, and particularly if they are becoming increasingly rigid with what they will eat.
- Offer Choices- In order to help introduce different varieties of food at mealtimes, as well as to avoid potential food upsets, offer children more than one option of a non-preferred or unfamiliar food at meals. For example, present both broccoli and zucchini, and then let the child choose which item will stay on their plate during the meal. This helps to give them some autonomy, while you still maintain control.
- Serve Up Success- Make sure to provide your child with something they will eat at each meal. We do not want to set them up for failure by presenting all non-preferred foods, but we also do not want to play short-order cook every night and make a different meal for each child! Therefore, if there is a particular food your child enjoys, try to offer it. Meals will go along much smoother if they are provided with at least one item you know they will eat.
Ultimately we want our children to enjoy eating and be open to trying new foods. However, feeding does not always come easily to each child. So be patient yet persistent and enjoy your mealtime together. If you have noticed that your child is dropping foods from their diet, if they are not thriving or beginning to lose weight, and are becoming increasingly frustrated during meals, it is recommended that you address these concerns with your pediatrician.
Written by Rachel Schwartz, LCSW, JCC Chicago Early Childhood Director of Social Services & Meghan Grant, M.S. CCC-SLP, Pediatric Speech and Language Pathologist, North Shore Pediatric Therapy.