Survival Guide for Parents of Picky Eaters
Have you ever been frustrated or worried about your child’s picky eating habits?
Maybe they used to love their peas and carrots, but now they’re turning up their nose! What happened to the good eater you could brag about? This happened to me with my first and most picky child. I spent many wasted hours fretting about his nutrition, wondering where I went wrong and trying to figure out how I failed him. During a low point with his weight, I had nightmares that he was going to die, so I took him to a pediatric nutritionist. It was a crazy time in my life as a parent, but I’m here to share the wisdom I have learned and hope to spare you some the trials and tribulations of feeding an extremely picky eater.
Toddlers Naturally Get More Picky
The first thing you should know is that all toddlers will become picky to a greater or lesser degree. As babies turn into toddlers their growth begins to slow and they need fewer calories. Combined with an understanding of the word “no”, it’s a recipe for big changes. Toddlers are also always on the go and sitting down for a meal can be difficult. This is normal, so don’t fret if your food loving baby turns into a picky tot. Give them time and they’ll love their vegetables again someday.
Selectively Picky vs. Extremely Picky
Normal toddlers will refuse most vegetables and some fruits at one time or another. They may have other foods they’d rather not eat if given a choice. However, if you give a normal toddler a choice of fruits and vegetable on a plate they’re bound to try a few things eventually. Given the right incentive (parent code for bribery), they just might finish off their broccoli and eat all their chicken too. These kids may not eat a wide variety, but they will eat a few healthy things and will try new foods even if they don’t like it.
An extremely picky child is a different situation entirely.
These children will probably refuse to eat vegetables and maybe even most fruits. Extremely picky kids would rather eat nothing than eat something they perceive as yucky. You can dress up fruits and vegetables, add fancy dips and artistic presentations and it won’t make a bit of difference. They may choke, gag and sometimes even vomit when forced to eat food.
Sensory issues, developmental delays, imbalances in gut flora and/or food allergies/sensitivities may be the culprit for these extreme behaviors.
In the case of my son, he had some sensory processing issues and a gag reflex that was far forward on the pallet so that he couldn't tolerate certain types of food textures or tastes. At times it was enough to drive me absolutely crazy and dinner was a nightmare for a while.
Here are some tips for keeping your sanity and helping your picky eater:
#1 Stop caring (or at least act like it)
We’ll never stop caring about our kid’s nutrition, but sometimes it’s better to act like we don’t. Constantly pestering your child to eat this or try that usually has the opposite effect and can make meal time a frustrating experience for everyone. If you act like it doesn’t matter, you’ll take the pressure off your child and yourself. Take a deep breath and let it go. They’ll eat what they eat and while you could force them to try food, don’t. Trust me, eventually when they're hungry enough they'll eat.
#2 Always, Always Put it on the Plate
Even if you know your child won’t eat the vegetables you’re serving you HAVE to put it on their plate. They may fuss over having it on the plate, but tell them that it has to stay on there even if they choose not to eat it. Someday they may try it. You never know. Also, put something on their plate you know they're going to eat. I call this priming the pump because sometimes eating a little bit of food when your really hungry can stimulate the appetite.
#3 Explore Food with All the Senses
During the worst phases of my son’s finicky period, we used to just have him smell the food, touch the food, then lick the food until we finally got to the point where he would take a nibble of the food. We would talk about the food and what it looked, smelled and tasted like. I would explain all the ways the food was good for his body.
#4 Make it Fun
When it was clear my boys were too antsy to sit through a meal we used to play a game called Red Light Take a Bite. I learned about this game from my good friend and colleague, Dr. Kristi Clay. The kids would be excused from the table and then every few minutes I would call “red light” and then they would come to the table and take a bite. They would end up eating a full meal this way. When I tried to force them to stay at the table and eat they would usually eat much less and be hungry later. Dr. Sears also has a great article, Feeding Picky Eaters: 17 Tips, on the many ways you can get your kids to eat healthy.
#5 Stand By Your Rules
Don’t let your picky eater rule the dinner table or ruin anyone else’s meal. Stop battling about food and dinner time will become a much more enjoyable experience.
Use these basic rules for a happy meal time experience:
- Everyone sits at the table during meal time (even if they’re not eating).
- No TV, books, toys are other distractions are allowed
- Vegetables stay on the plate and are not allowed to be placed on a napkin or on the table.
- Kids must touch, taste, lick or try the vegetables (depending on the level that they’re at).
- No one leaves until excused
#6 Keep it Positive
Most of the ways of dealing with picky eaters are punishment oriented. The child may be bullied into eating, forced to sit at the table until the try or eat everything, or denied food if they don't eat their dinner. Some of these methods may work for the selectively picky eater because they'll give in. However, these methods rarely ever work with extremely picky eaters and end up leading to frustration, anger and tears. We don't want our picky kids to grow up and have food issues. I think it's better to try a different approach even if it looks like you're "giving in." If what we say and what we think becomes our reality then it’s very important to keep it positive. Your child may not be able to help being picky at this time in their life. I used to tell my son, “I bet someday you’re going to try that lettuce and like it” or “It’s good to try new things because you might find it’s yummy.” Remind them of a time they tried something new and it tasted good. Believe that someday they will enjoy food and they’ll believe it, too. It will happen.
#7 Have an Evening Snack
Dinner was our most difficult meal for a couple of years. The advice of our holistic pediatrician, Dr. Elisa Song, was to always give the option of a healthy snack before bed. Fruit, smoothies, nuts, sunflower seed butter anything we deemed healthy was ok, but not enough food to replace a meal. He never went to bed starving and woke the next day with low blood sugar and a bad mood.
#8 Take a Break
It can be exhausting for parents to sit through meal after meal with a picky eater that doesn’t eat. So, take a break and at least once a week feed them a meal you know they’ll eat.
#9 Look at Nutrition from a Longer Perspective
When you look at what your child eats over the course of the week, you usually find they’re eating better than you think. They aren’t going to be like adults that willingly eat fruits and vegetables with every meal (well, maybe not all adults). Some days they’ll eat broccoli, other days they won’t, but over a week you’ll see that they’re probably getting adequate nutrition. Could your kids be eating healthier than you realize? Check out 4 Food Groups All Kids Should Eat by Emily Bartlett of Holistic Squid and I’m sure you’ll feel much better about your tots’ diet.
#10 No matter where your child falls on the finicky scale, don’t lose hope.
My son went for a few years only eating organic chicken nuggets and oven fries, to fresh cooked chicken and rice and now seven years later he’s eating lamb burgers with zucchini & shitake mushrooms, salads, salsa, apples, peaches, and all kinds of new foods! There was a time I thought I would never see the day! I did my own version of the crazy mom dance in celebration of this amazing accomplishment. Stay strong parents, you’ll get there, too! If you have concerns about your toddler or child’s eating habits you may want to consult your pediatrician, a pediatric nutritionist or an occupational therapist for further evaluation.
For more tips on picky eating check out my book
By understanding your child's unique 5-Element nature, you'll be able to design a healing program to help restore balance, increase their appetite, and turn them into a great eater!!
This blog has been shared on: Simply Natural Saturdays from pistachioproject.com
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