Tips for Parents with Picky Eaters
I wrote this blog post back in 2014 and am re-posting it with some edits for parents with picky eaters.
I was shopping in Costco the other day and the Vitamix man was in the middle of whipping up a green smoothie, giving his whole pitch for paying $700 for a blender. I, along with about 20 other eager weekday shoppers, waited patiently through his speech to get a taste. As my almost two-year-old daughter and I walked away from the display table headed for the cereal aisle, each with a green drink in hand, a distraught mother caught my eye and asked, "What do you make with your Vitamix?" I told her I actually don't have one and she then said, "You know, I bought one a year or so ago to try to get him (pointing to her 5 year old son in her cart) to eat more things."
I wasn't sure what to say. In my personal life, there are all too many situations I find myself in where I want more than anything to let the dietitian inside me come out and save the world! I paused, contemplating if I should strike up a conversation with her about her son's pickiness to see if there were any recommendations I could make to help her out. I decided to go for it.
After I introduced myself to her as a registered dietitian with experience with toddler and childhood pickiness, she ended up explaining to me all about her son who pretty much refuses to eat all food except chocolate milk. He will eat sweets and occasionally things off of her plate, but demands chocolate milk 9 times out of 10. She relayed the very common sentiment of well-intentioned parents, saying, "Well, at least it's SOME form of nourishment!" I watched her try to coax her 5-year-old into tasting the green smoothie to no avail. The poor kid had classic signs of malnutrition—he was small and weak and was falling asleep in the middle of the day in the grocery shopping cart with giant dark circles under his eyes. I made eye contact with that sweet little boy and his eyes were so sad. I felt sad for him and very sad for his parents too.
After asking her a few more questions, I talked with her for a few minutes, offering advice for breaking through this power struggle over food. It's tough because there's only so much I can do in the middle of Costco talking to a complete stranger, but I tried to help.
If you are in a similar situation with your child, here are a few tips. Keep in mind, your child will adjust, especially if you remain consistent and firm. These tips will be mostly relevant to parents of toddlers and preschoolers.
1. Keep drinks other than water to meal and snack time only. This means juice, milk, chocolate milk, or any other fluid besides water. Offer only water in between meals and snacks. Young kids have tiny tummies and they can feel falsely full if they have been drinking lots juice or milk. The big problem that comes when kids fill up on milk or juice in between meals or snacks is that they can be so full from those fluids that they refuse to eat actual foods and thus may miss out on key nutrients in their diet.
2. Understand your responsibilities as the parent and their responsibilities as the child in the feeding relationship. Ellyn Satter, a well-known dietitian and researcher in the field of infant and childhood nutrition, has a very important and impactful theory regarding the parent/child food relationship. She calls it the Division of Responsibility. In the feeding relationship, the parent is in charge of what the child is offered to eat and when. The child is responsible to choose if they eat and how much. The parent plans, prepares, and serves the food to the child at planned times and that's where the parent's responsibility ends. It is not necessary nor helpful for the parent to hover over the child's plate, ensuring adequate servings of each food group are eaten. Instead, the parent sits down with the child, ideally eating the same food as her, and carries on with conversation and everyday life, not focusing on how much food is being eaten, how messy the child is eating, or anything else about the food. Basically, offer the food and then allow the child to explore, taste and enjoy, recognizing that it is in his/her rights to refuse to eat at all.
3. Have planned meal and snack times throughout the day. This will be what can keep you going when step number 2 shown above gets very difficult with a child who refuses to eat. Offer 3 meals per day (breakfast in the morning, lunch at midday, and dinner in the evening) with a snack in between meals and possibly another snack before bed if needed. If your child refuses breakfast, you can rest easy knowing that the next snack time is only two or so hours away. If your child is begging you for food in the afternoon as you are getting things together for dinner, you can remind your child that snack time is only a half hour from now! If your child refuses the dinner that you have offered and served, you can relax knowing that you will be able to serve them a snack before bed so that they will not go hungry.
4. Recognize that it is developmentally appropriate and normal for your child to eat ravenously one day and pick at her food the next. Just knowing this fact can help parents relax when it comes to how much their child is eating. All too commonly, a parent notices her child is hardly eating anything and then panics, wondering if SOMETHING is better than nothing. That's when the go-to foods come out because you know without a doubt that your child will eat that food. Don't get caught up in this cycle! Knowing these days of feasting and fasting are normal for young ones, and don't let it stress you out!
4. Avoid making separate meals for your child. It's very tempting to get into the habit of offering separate meals for your child. Maybe you assume they would never eat the feta cheese you are eating with your salad, or maybe it's because you've gotten into the habit of feeding your child something quick and easy and then eating later yourself. Start offering foods from your own dinner table (or breakfast, or lunch table) when you start introducing solids in infancy. You should always offer at least one food item at a meal that you know your child will eat. For example, let's say you are planning on making a chicken ceasar salad with garlic bread for dinner and your child is 18 months old with only 8 teeth and no molars. Salad is tough with no teeth! Be sure to offer something on the table that she will like. Maybe it's a roll or fruit or yogurt. Cut up the chicken, offer the roll, have a fruit option, and even offer some of the vegetables in the salad. You can even put a small amount of the dressing on her plate to allow her to experiment with dipping.
5. Try to avoid making food a battle. It can take up to 17 times of being exposed to a food for a child to decide they will eat it. Be patient, and continue offering the foods even when times get tough!
6. Most important tip: Set the example of healthy eating yourself and eat with your child. Sit down and eat meals and snacks with your child. He or she wants so much to be like dad and mom and wants to be grown up. Show your child that you enjoy variety and that food and eating can be positive and fun! Say it with your actions, more so than with your words, and they will listen.
These tips are intended to get you started. As always, there are unique situations that may require different approaches and may require the help of a registered dietitian. If you feel you need help with your child and/or family's picky eating, check out our nutrition therapy services.