Steps for Navigating Selective Eating
Picky eating is a topic I’m very familiar with. As a pediatric dietitian, the question parents most often ask me pertains to their child’s selective eating behavior. As a mom of a picky eater and a former picky eater myself, I feel their pain! At about age 5, I clearly remember a food jag where I refused to eat anything besides peanut butter on a bread heel. Since a loaf has only two heels, you can imagine the frustration of my poor mother. The payback was when my daughter developed into a full-blown picky eater – complete with a “grapes and buttered pasta” food jag. As a preschooler, she ate the same breakfast cereal every day for a year.
Convinced that their child will surely starve, parents of fussy eaters sometimes go to great lengths to please picky palates. They serve mostly brown (or white) foods, stick to just one vegetable (usually corn) or bribe their child with dessert if they will just “take a bite” of a new food.
When parents resort to these behaviors, they set the stage for power struggles over food, which can actually undermine their child’s eating development. By giving into a child’s dietary whims, finicky food behavior is reinforced and family mealtimes become a dreaded occasion.
On the other hand, when parents remain emotionally neutral, continue to offer a variety of healthful foods, and model positive eating behaviors, most kids will eventually branch out and learn to enjoy a variety of foods.
Advice for parents of picky Eaters
- Relax. Picky eating behavior is a perfectly normal phase at certain ages and stages in your child’s development. For instance, as infants turn into toddlers, they become more autonomous and their growth rate – as well as appetite – tapers off. As a result, between the ages of 18 months – 3 years, it’s normal for children to say “no” to many new foods.
- Understand parent-child boundaries in regards to eating. Offer your child a varied and well-balanced diet but don’t force him to eat a specified amount, “take just a bite,” or produce a “clean plate.” Respect your child’s ability to determine when he’s had enough to eat. If he refuses to eat at all, gently remind him when the next meal/snack will be served.
- Realize that it’s normal for many kids to exhibit a negative reaction to a new food. Don’t give up though — kids sometimes need 10 or more exposures to a food before they will take their first bite. To increase acceptance, offer a familiar and well-liked food alongside a small portion of a new food.
- Don’t make assumptions about what your child will or will not eat. Give her the opportunity to decide whether she will sample a food that she previously declared “yucky.” Tastes change as children mature.
- Recognize the importance of a regular meal and snack schedule and make it a priority to include a shared family meal each day. Allowing your child to graze all day inhibits a healthy appetite at mealtime. Offer water instead of sugary beverages when your child is thirsty.
- Try not to cater to the picky eater by making special orders or forcing the family to eat just a few meals. One strategy that worked for me was to set several easy side dishes on the table such as whole grain rolls or bread, a bowl of fresh-cut veggies, cut-up fruit, baked beans, or salad topped with cheese. There were evenings when my daughter ate a meal of whole wheat bread, milk and a few baby carrots.
- Prepare foods in a variety of ways. For instance, if your child refuses cooked peas, try serving fresh pea pods with a dip such as hummus, guacamole, or Greek yogurt mixed with fresh herbs. A child who shuns a bowl of salad may gladly eat leaf lettuce, tomatoes and sweet onion slices when they are layered on a sandwich. Roasted red potatoes may win over the taste buds of a child who refuses to eat mashed potatoes.
- Invite your child to help you with food-related tasks such as shopping, menu planning, cooking and gardening. Kids are more likely to try something that they had a hand in creating.
- Be a positive model for healthy eating and physical activity. Children learn more by watching what we do rather than what we say. Avoid making disparaging comments about a food that you dislike.
- Be sure to take your child to the pediatrician or a health care provider for regular growth check-ups. Most often, you will be reassured to see that your picky eater is managing to get enough food for proper growth. Regular check-ups can also alert you to any problems before they become serious.
In case you are wondering, I’m still a bit of a picky eater, though I definitely lean toward fresh and healthy choices. I still like bread heels, but I will eat the other slices too, as long as the bread is a hearty whole grain variety. As for my daughter, she has grown into a wonderful young lady who enjoys a variety of foods, though fruit is still not her favorite.