Picky eating can drive a parent up a wall! If you have a child who is a picky eater you know this well. The fear that your child will become ill or starve, or that you will be deemed a harmful parent becomes overwhelming. And, the endless effort it takes to get your child to eat becomes exhausting. Fortunately, there are some simple changes you can make at home to help your child.
What Is Picky Eating?
Kids naturally turn up their noses at new foods from time to time. Sometimes they react to new flavors and other times the child might just want to practice independence. Also, a young child’s taste buds are very sensitive, some more than others, so something that tastes calm to us might taste strong to them and get rejected.
All of this is normal and I like to let children know they will notice their tongue changes its mind from time to time. This helps them learn that what they don’t like now, they might like later.
When Picky Eating Becomes a Problem
When picky eating crosses over and becomes a problem certain patterns occur. You will notice some of these things which will tell you it is time to seek professional input.
- Regular refusal to eat well on nearly a daily basis
- Complaints about eating such as it makes me feel sick or nothing tastes good
- Complaints about smells, textures, mixtures
- Child is too thin and begins to appear unhealthy, pale, weak, anxious, depressed
- Child has a very short list of acceptable foods and the list may change from day to day. Makes it hard to shop for groceries, right?
- You have become scared, frustrated, angry, exhausted from trying everything you can think of to get enough food into your child.
What to Do Next
- If you see any number of these behaviors have your doctor rule out physical problems like stomach malfunction or things that might show up in blood work.
- If your Doctor doesn’t find any mechanical problems, locate a therapist, such as an LCPC or LCSW, who works with children and understands picky eating problems. The therapist can assess the details and discern if a diagnosis of OCD fits, or Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder.
- You and your child will benefit greatly from this type of help and will enjoy learning how to overcome the problem together.
Parents Can Help
Regardless of what type of help you get, there are things to do at home that will support change.
- First, back off. Once the Doctor has confirmed the absence of physical concerns or diseases, blood work discoveries, thyroid problems, etc. picky eating becomes an emotional/behavioral and parenting issue. The first thing to do is back off. Worried parents become hypervigilant, or overly watchful, at mealtimes. Sometimes other children become involved, with everyone watching the little eater, commenting, encouraging, bargaining etc. All of this must stop.
- No more clean plate requirements. Instead, allow children to serve themselves an appropriately child sized amount. They can request seconds if they have eaten their first servings. This method lets children learn about their own body and its appetite.
- The Three Try Its: Try It Smell – a cautious sniff, Try It Taste can mean just the tip of the tongue – often test buds are very fine tuned in these kids, Try It Bite can be a tiny nibble. Teach your child these three ways of experiencing their food on their own and then leave them alone. Interestingly, after we let them do this they often end up eating some of the food they used to refuse.
- Always serve at least one thing the child likes at each meal, but don’t make a big deal of it.
- NO special meals for the picky eater. Never ask kids what they want for dinner. Your job is to cook good food. Their job is to eat what is served to the family, even if it is a small amount.
- If a child decides not to eat then they wait until the next meal to eat. They won’t starve. And they don’t get a bedtime snack.
- No snacks closer than 1.5 hours before a meal. And, no after dinner snack, including bedtime snack. Some picky eaters will hold out for the bedtime snack instead of eating the meal. Snacks sap away appetite. Appetite helps kids conquer picky eating.
- No special foods such as protein drinks etc. These aren’t really food and are usually sweet sweet sweet. They mess up digestion and train taste buds to only want sweet. Just provide real food, always.
- No weighing. Picky eating is not a weight issue. It is an eating/anxiety issue. Tell the child the doctor will do all the weighing. Get rid of the scale.
- Stay at the table and visit with the family until ALL are excused.
- No distractions, TV, iPad, phones, even in the background.
- Get them into the kitchen and cooking with you. Make this a rotating job for every child in the family.
- Try not to talk too much about the food at a meal. No “Yuuummmm, this is soooo good.” The kid will know you are indirectly focusing on him/her. Talk about the day instead. Or books. Anything but the food, unless it’s a simple compliment for the cook.
- And, parents…..RELAX. Using these strategies regularly, daily, forever will help. And when things start to improve, don’t quit.
If the problem persists, despite your best consistent effort, seek more medical help due to the risk of malnutrition over time. Talk to your doctor about medication options just so you know what might help the anxiety. And, keep seeing the therapist and using these strategies.
You can send me questions and comments if you like.