How to Deal with Your Picky Eater

By Lori S Brizee MS, RDN, LD, CDE

There are few kids in this world who do not go through a phase of picky eating. Kids who ate everything you offered them when they were infants often start refusing many foods somewhere between one and two years of age. This is normal!  Kids are gaining weight and growing more slowly than in infancy so appetites decrease. By addressing picky eating early, we help our kids to develop a broad palate that meets their nutritional needs as they grow.

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Help kids to understand hunger and fullness cues: Offer three meals and one to three snacks per day and space meals and snacks out by two to four hours, with nothing other than water between eating times. If your child is too busy playing to have a snack, fine; she will probably be ready to eat at the next mealtime. Kids who come to the table hungry are far more apt to try new foods than those who have been grazing since the last meal.

Allow kids to eat as much or as little as they are hungry for at meals and snacks. Once they tell you they are full, ask them if they are sure and then, wipe hands and face, have them clear their place if able, and allow them to get down and go play; the meal or snack is over. If we are forcing or cajoling our kids to eat more, or restricting how much they eat at a meal or snack, we are overriding their natural appetite cues.

Make eating ‘its own activity’: Aim for all Meals and Snacks to be eaten sitting down, without TV, books, toys, computer, riding in the car or other distractions. This needs to be a goal for parents and children. We are far more likely to eat just what we are hungry for if we are not doing anything else while eating.

Family meals: Kids are far more apt to eat a variety of foods if they are eating with other people, especially if those people include a parent (they do want to spend time with you). Make meals enjoyable; talk about your and your kids’ day, something exciting that is coming up, ANYTHING other than whether your child is eating his meal or not.

Don’t be a short-order cook! Offer your child whatever you are making for the family at a meal, but include at least one thing in the meal that you know your child will eat. Put very small amounts of other foods on your child’s plate. Do not force her to eat it, but it needs to stay on her plate. It often takes many exposures to a new food before a child actually eats it. She needs to see it, see you eat it, touch it, smell it and maybe taste it and spit it out in order to eventually eat it and like it. If a child willingly takes a bite and swallows it, there is a very good chance that he will continue to eat that food as time goes on. Forcing or cajoling a child to eat a food, or withholding dessert if they don’t eat something is going to backfire. Do you ever remember liking a food after you were forced to sit in front of it until you ate it?

When pickiness affects your child’s health: Some kids’ pickiness is severe and may result in poor growth and/or actual nutrient deficiencies. This is often due to aversions to textures and/or tastes.  Undetected problems with chewing or swallowing may also result in picky eating. In these cases it can be helpful to work with a pediatric dietitian-nutritionist. For kids with chewing/swallowing issues, evaluation and treatment by a pediatric speech therapist who works with feeding issues is essential. For kids have sensory issues, work with a pediatric occupational therapist can help in reducing sensitivities to tastes and textures. If this sounds like your child, check out the book: Food Chaining: The Proven 6-Step Plan to Stop Picky Eating, Solve Feeding Problems, and Expand Your Child’s Diet by Cheryl Fraker, Marc Fishbein, Sibyl Cox and Laura Walbert. This book explains they “why’s” behind severe picky eating and gives a very practical plan for gradually expanding a child’s eating.

Other references
Healthy Choices, Healthy Children, A Guide to Raising Fit, Happy Kids by Lori Brizee with Sue Schumann Warner is a basic primer on healthy eating for kids. Chapter 6, “Help for Picky Eaters” is focused on helping your child to expand his eating choices.

How to Get Your Kid to Eat, But Not Too Much by Ellyn Satter, and the website: http://ellynsatterinstitute.org/index.php. Both this book and website have
many great ideas on helping improve kids’ eating.

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