Before specializing in pediatrics, I could have never imagined how much stress picky eating could cause parents and caregivers.
At first parents may feel their child just likes certain foods more than others. Then maybe they don’t like fruits and vegetables. Then parents may begin to watch what other kids eat, how much they eat, how often they eat, how easy meal time may be for other parents, etc. They then begin “noticing” their kid may only eat processed foods, beige foods, warm foods, or food not prepared at home! The worrisome thoughts begin to creep in. Is my child’s diet negatively impacting their brain development?! What about their growth potential?! Is it making them groggy and unable to absorb what their learning in school? Will they begin to fall behind in school? What if there is something medically wrong with them now because their will not eat meat or vegetables! Are they dehydrating themselves?! I can continue to list the scary thoughts I have heard, but it’s beginning to make me anxious, and I definitely don’t want to make you anxious!
Well I have great news! This is not a situation where stressing about it and “being on top of it” will make it better. Actually, it will make it way worse.
My advice as a pediatric dietitian? Ignore it!
Draw as little attention to your child’s picky eating behaviors as possible. Serve them what you want them to eat and that is the end of it. Children pick up on our stressors. If meal time is a stressful time for you and you’re worried about what they will eat, they pick up on it and it has become a negative experience for them. Negative experiences are obviously unenjoyable and children can act out – hence picky eating.
As moms, these are our personal experiences, but more importantly these findings (and recommendations for handling picky eating) have been researched and studied. The Abbott Nutrition Health Institute recently conducted a study on “Picky Eating Behaviors in Children and Family Stress.”
They concluded: “…parents of children who do not consume enough of specific food groups feel stress over mealtime occasions, as demonstrated by statements in the study family stress tool, such as “I feel myself getting more anxious as meal time approaches” or “Meals always end in a quarrel”. Because of possible deleterious effects of picky eating behaviors over time, it is important to modify or improve these behaviors, especially for the health of the family and their relationship with their child(ren). Additionally, negative eating behaviors appear to be cyclical if parents react adversely with controlling, threatening, angry, or permissive actions. Picky eating behaviors do tend to decrease with age; however, some children continue to retain undesirable eating behaviors later in life with possible effects on physical, mental, and psychosocial facets of a child’s life.12, 13 Picky eating behaviors should be considered worthy of discernment, and a strategy should be developed for modifications and improvement. “
How do parents begin to combat picky eating behaviors? Here is Feed To Succeed’s list! I can promise you, as parents, we implement these tips at home also.
- Cook and serve only what you want your child to eat.
Don’t be a “short-order” cook. You are the parent, so you know what is best for your child. Make meals family events, and serve everyone the same foods. It’s okay to have one “safe” item out for the picky child (such as plain bread or rice).
- Eat together as a family.
Eat meals together as often as possible. Serve the same meal to everyone. Model good eating behaviors by eating a variety of nutritious foods in front of your children.
- Never force a child to eat.
- Introduce new foods frequently.
Offer a new food item daily and expect it to take up to 15 attempts with a particularly picky eater before he/she will accept the food. Consider it progress for extremely picky kids if they simply allow the food to sit on their plate.
- Have a schedule.
Offer 3 meals and 2 snacks at approximately the same time every day. Allow a minimum of 2 hours between meals/snacks. Offer nothing to eat or drink between meals/snacks except water.
- Always eat at the table.
Serve all meals and snacks at the table with screens turned off. Eat together as a family as often as possible.
- Offer milk with every meal.
Soda, juice, Kool-Aid, and sweet tea do not add anything nutritious to your child’s diet, so they are not necessary.
- Offer foods from each food group at most meals.
- Limit meal time to 20-30 minutes.
If your child tantrums, asks for something else, refuses to eat, or gets up from the table, wait 15 minutes and try again. If the problem continues, end the meal or snack and wait until the next scheduled meal/snack time to offer anything (except water). Do not make a big deal out of this or give it attention. Do not make it like a punishment. Just be matter of fact.
- Keep your emotions in check, and stay in control of the situation.
Give a neutral/unemotional reaction when your child eats poorly. Don’t over react. Don’t discuss eating or food at mealtime, except for two things:
- “Do you want more?”
- “Are you done?” When your child does eat well, give a mild positive reaction such as: “Oh, you must be hungry today. Good eating.”