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If you’re like thousands of other parents your child has gone through a picky eating stage. How long that stage lasts varies by child and by family, but not to worry – here are 5 tips to help your picky eater! Read on to learn more.
There are countless memes floating around about picky eating but none of them tell you what’s normal and what you should be worried about. Let’s start by clarifying- infants are NOT picky eaters. Picky eating is most common in toddlers and preschoolers, and when parents raise concerns to their pediatricians they are told not to worry. Not all children grow out of picky eating, but every child should be given the opportunity to learn to appreciate new foods. If your child has an ever shrinking list of foods they will accept, it is time to get some help. Some children may struggle with extreme picky eating and may be diagnosed with ARFID or avoidant restrictive food intake disorder resulting in disturbances of intake patterns and often struggle to gain appropriate weight. Children with ARFID typically have a very small (less than 15) list of foods they will consume and it seems to be getting shorter. These children often benefit from a team approach to normalize feeding and eating behavior.
It’s the smallest changes that can make the biggest impact. Setting and sticking to a meal and snack schedule gives your child an incredible safety net and framework to build upon. Children need to know when they will eat again and to build a consistent pattern. Once they understand the pattern and the schedule their body will follow – their hunger and satiety will ebb and flow along with the schedule as a typical feeding pattern should. It is strongly recommended not to offer foods in between your set schedule. If your child asks for a certain item you can let them know when you’ll be serving snack/meal and you may consider offering the item they’re requesting at that time. As a reminder you as the parent gets to decide what is offered, the child decides how much to eat.
Children may demonstrate cautious (or picky) behavior around new or non-preferred foods. Sometimes it’s the way the food looks, or smells, or maybe even the presumed texture. A very helpful technique to increase their confidence around a particular food is to involve them in the whole process around a food or dish. Start with the meal planning, discuss how and why you are choosing recipes, show them how you’re building the grocery list and what things you consider, talk to them about the different ways to prepare a dish or food and have them help you make the food. Through all of these early phases, do not push them to try any bites – let them be in control here. Your job during these steps is to increase their understanding of and comfort with the food. They are still in charge of how much they want to eat at these exposures. As their exposures to new foods increases their comfort and confidence increases and they will get to the point where they are ready to touch and try the food, and then hopefully go on to really enjoy it.
So many families I work with tell me they wish their kid would eat healthy. In our work together I always ask the parents to explain in detail what healthy means to them because there are many different interpretations, and our kids have no idea what we want! Once we understand what the parent’s goals are we completely remove the good or bad, healthy or junk labels from foods. Any food can be good for you, after all they all provide calories. We want to call the foods what they are – candy, chips, avocado, strawberries, fruits, vegetables etc. Once we have that language cleared up we can move to explaining that what the parents actually want is for their child to eat more protein foods or to try more vegetables. Sticking with using proper food names will allow your child to more clearly understand what you expect.
In our current lives the lines between work and home are blurred. Many parents are using any free moment to fill in some outstanding task like loading the dishwasher or swapping the laundry or taking out the trash. When you set your child at the table with food and you run around doing these quick little tasks, you are telling them that feeding themselves is not a priority – that feeding yourself is not a priority. Your actions are that whatever you are doing is more important than sitting and eating with them. I understand that times are crazy but taking even 5 minutes to just sit and enjoy the meal will reap more benefits than you imagine. Having the moment to check in with your child, to take care of yourself and to really focus can decrease stress levels and improve our relationships.
We set goals for so many things in life – why not set a goal of helping your picky eater feel more confident, of making your meals less of a fight? After all a more Blissful home life can help you achieve all your other dreams because you will be carrying less stress and you will all be better nourished. Decide on a reasonable goal – as a starting point 1 would suggest 1-2 new foods per week. Get your kids involved in the goal setting, they may surprise you with what they want to try!
You do not have to wait for your kid to maybe grow out of their picky eating as the pediatrician suggests – you can take actionable steps to broaden the foods your child is exposed to and tries. You can use the 5 tips to help your picky eater above to improve your family meals and to help your child feel more confident with new foods. My book Blissful Meals – Guide for Picky Eaters is available now and goes deeper into all of these areas as well as providing meal plans and prep lists to make the changes easier. You can also apply for my coaching programs here.