Parenthood can really put you through it! If it’s not the sleep struggles, it’s the tantrums. And if it’s not the tantrums, it’s the sibling rivalry. And if it’s not any of those, it’s the PICKY EATING.
I have talked to so many of you who are simply at your wits end when it comes to picky eating. It can be one of the most stressful topics to navigate because as a parent, your main concern is that your child is healthy and developing well. So when picky eating rears its head, it can bring with it a myriad of worries:
–are they eating enough?
–are they getting all the nutrients they need to grow and thrive?
–what if they won’t eat meat, or touch a vegetable?
Let me just tell you–I HEAR YOU, and you’ve come to the right place.
After journeying through the phases of picky eating with my oldest child, I started to gear my work toward helping parents navigate these tricky waters. So in this post, I’m going to answer a few main questions:
How do I prevent picky eating?
How do I help my picky eater?
In a perfect world, we could stop picky eating before it starts, but I’ll be the first to tell you that isn’t always possible. You can do everything in the world “perfectly” (not that there is one perfect way to feed your child!) and still end up with a picky eater.
So while there are things we can do to hopefully set our kids up to be less picky around food, we can’t always control it. Toddlers and young children often go through picky stages–and it is developmentally completely normal.
If you’re here because you have a picky eater, welcome. You didn’t do anything wrong. And there are lots of tools I can share to help you combat picky eating tendencies. And if you’re here because you’re trying to stave it off before it gets to be a problem- great! These strategies and ideas are so useful in helping our kids build flexibility and become more at ease around food!
Related: Podcast: How to Prevent Picky Eating
What is picky eating?
I usually define picky eating with a couple criteria–but keep in mind that it’s not an exact science, so if your child meets some but not all of these criteria, they may still be picky! I generally say if your child is eating about 20 foods or fewer, gets upset about or is completely unwilling to try new things, drops foods that they used to like and doesn’t come back around to them, or cuts out entire food groups– then you likely have a picky eater.
You might be surprised to hear this, but picky eating actually can have a genetic component. So if you’re scratching your head wondering where you went wrong, you didn’t! Sometimes picky eating may have to do with the way that your child experiences food.
But if you think about it, some of us like sour foods, some of us don’t. Some of us like cilantro, others think it tastes like soap. Some people find spicy foods pleasant, and others avoid them entirely. There is a genetic component that determines how our taste buds experience things (and there are even what are called ‘supertasters’ who are thought to have more intense flavor experiences due to hyperactive taste buds!).
And, science shows that food neophobia (fear of new foods) and ‘food fussiness’ are highly inheritable. So if mom or dad were picky as kids, there’s a good chance you’ll have a picky kid, too.
So, yes, there is somewhat of a genetic component to picky eating. But that doesn’t mean we’re totally powerless over it. Some of it we can influence! And when I say ‘influence’, I really want to differentiate that from ‘control’. We can develop tools and strategies that can set our kids up for success with eating, but we can’t control them. We can’t control what they like, or ultimately what they choose to eat–that’s up to them! We’ll talk about this more later in the post!
Finally, I just want to mention that just because you have a picky eater does not mean all your children will be picky eaters. For those of you who have already had different experiences with different kiddos, you may already know that this can vary widely from child to child. A lot has to do with their temperament and personality, their orientation towards the world and new experiences, etc. So just know that you may do the same thing for multiple children and have one who ends up struggling with picky eating and one who doesn’t at all!
Let’s move on to talking about some of the ways we can combat picky eating early on and to manage it when it’s happening.
The X’s and O’s
Picky eating is a delicate topic to tackle, and as much as I don’t want to give you “dos and don’ts”, there is one thing I know to be true about picky eaters: they do not respond well to pressure.
So when I tell you NOT to pressure them, I’m more so trying to say that all attempts at bargaining, bribing, and convincing (even though it comes from a great place!) will always be interpreted by your picky eater as pressure, and pressure often will just cause them to go into shut-down mode. Now you’ve prepped, cooked, cajoled, pleaded with them to take a bite, and they refuse. Doubly defeating.
I want to save you both from this cycle of defeat, so here is my list of what to avoid vs. what to aim for.
What to avoid:
- Pressure. See above. Pressure never really leads to greater acceptance of the food or resolution of picky eating tendencies. You may sometimes “win” and get them to take a bite or two, but it most likely didn’t really inch them closer to acceptance or decrease their anxiety about the food (if that’s the issue).
- Drawing attention to picky eating habits. We want to avoid saying things like, “gosh, you’re so picky!” It can be so hard not to just exclaim this out of frustration when you’ve made your fifth dinner of the week that they didn’t touch, but this is counterproductive in a couple of ways! First, anything that we call attention to is what comes into focus. So picky eating dominates the meal. It becomes ALL that’s happening at mealtime, instead of mealtime being a chance to have fun, unwind, and connect with family. We want meals to be fun and low pressure, not too focused on a picky eater at the table. And secondly, it gives your picky eater kind of an ‘out’. It gives them an identity to latch onto–“well, I’m picky, so I don’t eat that,” kind of thing.
- Any negative talk at meal times. About the food, about the behavior, about pickiness. Negative talk about any of those things can really steer the conversation and set the tone for the meal, making it unenjoyable for you and your picky eater.
- Short order cook. This is a big one. Many parents feel that if their child won’t eat what is served, then it’s their job to go remake another food you know they’ll eat. You end up doing double the work, and your child ends up receiving the message that if they don’t like what’s served, that’s okay, mom will make my favorite meal instead. This disincentivizes kids to consider trying what’s served.
I can hear you now saying, “BUT WHAT IF THEY WON’T EAT ANYTHING?! I CAN’T SEND THEM TO BED HUNGRY, RIGHT!?”
I’m not advocating for sending them to bed hungry, don’t worry. But I am advocating for you not having to do double the work every meal time. In the next section, I’ll introduce the idea of ‘safe foods’–which are foods that you know your child likes and will reliably eat. We will also talk about division of responsibility at meal times (aka what’s your job vs. what is your child’s job).
(Spoiler: your job is to make sure there’s at least one safe food served to your child–that’s all.)
What to aim for:
- Keeping mealtimes light and fun. Strike up conversation about something interesting, ask funny questions, inquire about their day.
- Praise the good. When you see desirable mealtime behaviors (i.e. sitting in their seat for X amount of time, using their utensils correctly, participating in conversation, etc.), call those out! Like I said in the previous section–what we call attention to is what determines the direction of the meal, so making an effort to notice and call out the behaviors you want to see more of can go a long way in steering the ship towards the good. In the same vein, if there aren’t a ton of mealtime behaviors going well, shift the mindset to working on those. Suggest seeing if they can cut their spaghetti with the fork and the knife, see if they can remember to sit facing forward with their napkin in their lap. Giving them a non-eating objective can shift the mindset and focus away from picky eating.
- Keep a clean slate mentality. If you’re serving a food they haven’t tried before or haven’t accepted in the past, it can be easy to go into the experience already defeated. Instead of helping them become a self-fulfilling prophecy by saying, “I know you don’t like fish, but that’s what we’re having tonight!”, try to say something neutral or descriptive, “this is salmon with a butter sauce.” They can tell if we’re expecting them to dislike it before it’s even served.
- Let them off the hook. It’s okay to tell them, “you don’t have to eat it!” This will help create a low pressure environment, and they may actually even be more inclined to try it when they don’t feel pressured. Or maybe not, and that’s okay too. It can take dozens and dozens of exposures before kids learn to like certain foods, so it’s okay if they haven’t learned to accept salmon or broccoli yet. That can take time. You can also help give them language for this, “no thank you,” instead of “ew this is gross! I hate broccoli!” You can also offer a no-thank you plate or section of their tray where they are free to put things they don’t want to eat. This is a great alternative to throwing things in disgust or being overwhelmed by an undesired food on their plate.
Note on the above – it IS okay if you do ask them to taste it, as long as it’s not causing them to melt down, completely lose their appetite, gag, or vomit. If any of those things happen when you ask them to try a taste (not even swallow it, but just touch it to their lips or lick it) then it’s a good idea to seek an evaluation with a qualified feeding therapist. And really, whenever you’re concerned that something major is going on that’s affecting their ability to eat, always mention it to the pediatrician.
Division of Responsibility
This is the foundational idea behind how we tackle picky eating. We have to figure out what YOUR job is as the parent, and what THEIR job is as the child. Once we get these roles right, you’ll all of a sudden be relieved of the pressure to short order cook, bend over backward to meet every demand, and count your kid’s bites to make sure they’ve eaten “enough.”
- Decide what to serve and when to serve it
- Offer variety
- Make sure there is a “safe” food at every meal
Sounds pretty simple, right?
You determine when meal time is, what is being served, and that you change it up regularly to offer a variety of foods so that they are given ample opportunity to get all the macro and micronutrients.
Don’t stress too much about knowing what each food contains as far as vitamins, minerals, etc. If you serve protein/carbohydrates/fats regularly, as well as different colored fruits and vegetables, you’re likely covering your bases really well!
Beyond this, your ONLY other job is to make sure that you serve a “safe food” WITH the meal. Your child’s safe foods are foods that you know they will consistently eat–could be a bread roll, could be berries, could be a cheese stick–whatever your starting point is is totally okay. The purpose of a safe food is to be served as a component of the meal so that your child has something they are familiar with, that they like, and that they will likely eat from their meal.
(Side note: it’s okay if it doesn’t “fit”with the rest of the meal.)
- Decide what to eat
- Decide how much to eat
I know you’re thinking, “But Kacie! They’re not eating ANYTHING!”
I know it feels stressful, but getting this division of responsibility right is crucial for us to support them on their journey toward greater food acceptance.
As much as we may want to, we can’t make them eat. We also can’t tell them what is “enough” for their bodies at a given time. Those are things that they have to be in control of, and deciphering the answers to those things takes skill. This skill is something we call ‘interoception’–which basically is the ability to interpret one’s own body cues accurately (i.e.- ‘I’m hungry, so I will eat more food’ or ‘I’m full, I don’t need any more today’).
We want to foster our children’s ability to listen to their own hunger and fullness cues and respond accordingly. That may look like 3 bites at one meal, and 3 entire servings at another meal. When we try to force them to take bites/eat, we are potentially asking them to ignore their own body cues–which is counterproductive in the long haul!
Extreme picky eating can be really worrisome. If you have a picky child and are worried they are not getting enough of X, Y, or Z, I always recommend talking to your doctor. They will be a great resource for helping address any medical issues that may come up, and may also be able to suggest resources in your community like a registered dietitian or feeding therapist (who is either a speech therapist or occupational therapist) that can help walk through this with you!
There are also shakes, supplements, smoothie recipes, and lots of tips and tricks to boost the nutrition in foods your child does like to help you get the most nutritional bang for your buck with foods your picky child will accept.
Can I really PREVENT picky eating?
This post is called how to prevent picky eating, but the truth is, we can’t always PREVENT it.
There are things we can do (like all the mealtime strategies above) that can help lower the likelihood, but like I said, you can do everything “by the book” and still have a picky eater.
The good news is that this, like many other challenges in parenthood, is a season. It won’t be like this forever. So if you’re in the thick of it, know that it may not always be the battle it is right now. Toddlers and young children are especially keen on flexing that independence muscle, and sometimes that can make mealtimes a nightmare.
Try these tactics to see if you can ward off picky eating, and know that I have tons more resources available if you need more help!