Moving From Peeved to Pleased with Your Picky Eater

I practiced pediatric occupational therapy for 15 years. I have training in all kinds of therapies including feeding and swallowing, and addressing picky eating. I was pretty good at this part of my job if I do say so myself. I helped many children and families make significant progress with their picky eaters. Then I had a bouncing beautiful baby girl who would get on my last nerve and challenge everything I thought I knew.

Moving From Peeved to Pleased with Your Picky Eater | Houston Moms Blog

The day she rejected my meal AGAIN and prepared herself a supper of grated cheese and ketchup, I had to step away, mommas, take some deep breaths and chug a glass of wine tell myself that all was not lost. She is extra challenging to help me gain experience and insight into what many of my clients and fellow mommas go through. She is helping me, right?! {Chugs more wine.}

Moving From Peeved to Pleased with Your Picky Eater | Houston Moms Blog

My daughter is 8 years old now and far from past her picky eating stage. I am in the trenches with y’all. I get it. Still, there are some picky eating tips that hold true for her and for the majority of picky eaters, and I want to share them with the hope that we all make it through this stage pleased rather than peeved with our kids and our parenting! 

Is my cherub a picky eater?

Chances are, if you’ve got a picky eater, you know it. But you may not realize how common it is. Estimates range from 20 – 60% of children are picky eaters at some stage of their childhood. Children as young as 19 months may demonstrate picky eating – goes along nicely with their new grasp of the word “NO!” Picky eating can persist into the tween and teen years, and let’s face it, many adults are picky eaters too – they just don’t get hassled about it by their parents anymore. Picky eating behavior includes food selectivity, food refusal, strong food preferences, consuming a limited variety of foods, being unwilling to try new foods, and/or driving their parents crazy at every meal. {That last bit isn’t part of the official definition.} If your sweet baby angel is a picky eater, you are in good company. 

Moving From Peeved to Pleased with Your Picky Eater | Houston Moms Blog

Step One:: Establish Proper Roles

Let me preface this by saying that I have done every wrong thing with my own kids when it comes to picky eating so I am not here to call the kettle black. Once I realized there are specific roles around feeding my darling daughter picky eater, my frustration level dramatically decreased.

Simply put, it is the parents’ role to decide what to serve and when, and the child’s role to decide what to actually put in their mouth. Think about it – when you give your child too many choices or let them run the supper show, showdowns often ensue. When you try to coax or force a child to “just take a bite,” you are trying to do their role. 

DO offer at least one food your child will accept at every meal and snack to ensure they won’t go hungry or feel stressed that there is nothing for them. DO offer a choice between two things if you want to involve your child in meal selection. DO offer other appropriate choices as well – e.g., where to sit, what utensil to use, what to eat first, etc.. But stick to your role and you will see them stick to theirs, more and more.

Moving From Peeved to Pleased with Your Picky Eater | Houston Moms Blog

Step Two:: Serve Proper Portions

Kids have small stomachs and have not “learned” to override their natural satiation signals, so when they say they’re full, they probably are. Adult-sized portions on adult-sized plates are overwhelming for children. Use salad or child-sized plates, serve smaller portions, and let them experience the joy of finishing a good meal. They can always ask for seconds! There are some good guides online for kids’ portion sizes and even though it seems impossible that your child can be sustained by one measly cheerio smaller portions, it will be less frustrating and wasteful to start small. 

DO limit milk and juice between or before meals that might disrupt their hunger cues and appetite. DO help them learn cues for fullness and hunger without screaming I TOLD YOU SO. DO recognize that they need less variety than you might like, but DO talk to a dietitian if you are concerned about their intake.

Moving From Peeved to Pleased with Your Picky Eater | Houston Moms Blog

 Step 3:: Establish Proper Routines

Eating is not just for health, it is also a social time when much learning and interaction occur. Studies show that the more meals a family eats together, the better the children develop. Offer 3 meals and 3 snacks, discourage grazing all day long, and eat together. Consider some special family touches like lighting a candle or saying grace. Turn off the TV and other distractions and enjoy this time knowing you are doing something important for your child. Routines also help you be consistent as a parent, which allows your child to feel secure. Even if they said they were full but didn’t eat enough, you can assure them {and yourself} that they won’t starve before the next meal or snack comes up.

DO offer a glass of water between meals and snacks and that glass of wine for you. DO keep meals and snacks short and sweet – 10 to 15 minutes for snack, and 20 to 30 minutes for meals; much longer than that and everyone is more prone to losing their cool.

Moving From Peeved to Pleased with Your Picky Eater | Houston Moms Blog

Step 4:: Picky Eating DON’Ts

  • Don’t force your child to take a bite.
  • Don’t make food and meals emotional. Food is neutral. It doesn’t have feelings. Whether a child accepts a food or not shouldn’t affect anyone’s feelings. {Cry about it later. Ha ha.}
  • Don’t assume your child will have the same tastes as you. We all have likes and dislikes. Keep an open mind and don’t talk negatively about food.
  • Don’t make how or what your child is eating the focus of the meal or snack.
  • Don’t be dishonest. You may not need to be upfront if you’ve added carrots into that muffin depending on the kid, but if your child notices and asks, be honest. Otherwise, they will learn to distrust you.
  • Don’t make your child finish their plate.
  • Don’t have unrealistic expectations. Some picky eaters may need 100+ exposures of the same food in a neutral way before they even consider touching or tasting it. This is a long journey and if your child accepts a handful of new foods each year, that is excellent progress!

Moving From Peeved to Pleased with Your Picky Eater | Houston Moms Blog

 

Step 5:: Tips for Introducing New Foods

  • Want them to eat more? Make sure they’re not gulping their appetite away with milk or juice. 
  • Take an inventory of what your child will accept in each food group :: dairy and alternates, fruits and veggies, meats and alternates, grains. 
  • Now, think about the look, taste, texture, temperature and smell of those foods. Choose something ‘one degree’ off from what they’ll already accept to offer as a new food.
  • Change the appearance or shape of an accepted food, try a different brand or give a new twist to an old favorite. Serve yogurt in a mug, blend berries with milk to change the color, drink applesauce through a straw. Be creative! All of these strategies encourage flexibility with food.
  • Repeated exposure :: once you’ve chosen a new food to introduce, put a small bit on everyone’s plate at each meal. Talk about it, model eating it and talk about it some more. Be patient and resist the urge to tell your child to eat it, though you may ask them if they want to touch, smell, kiss, lick or taste it. When they do, give low key reinforcement. Foods like frozen veggies or berries or cooked pasta are convenient and inexpensive for this strategy.
  • Away from the table, incorporate food into play. Have a good old-fashioned tea party, use play food and role play, or use real food in play – with no emphasis or attempt to eat it. Paint with pudding, use scissors to cut fruit-to-go, make crafts with food, paint with a celery-stalk-paintbrush. Have fun and model that food is something to be enjoyed!

Moving From Peeved to Pleased with Your Picky Eater | Houston Moms Blog

The Bottom Line::

If you try some of these strategies and still have concerns, talk to your health professional. If your child continually narrows and narrows their repertoire, eliminates a food group, has difficulty eating or swallowing, is lethargic or shows other signs of poor health, talk to your doctor or pediatrician.

Picky eating may be a brief stage or it may persist for years. {Lord I pray my daughter’s picky eating years are coming to a close!!} Some feeding experts count 32 steps between being in the same room as food and actually eating the food. Chances are, your child is already near the top of the stairs. Time to celebrate! 

Moving From Peeved to Pleased with Your Picky Eater | Houston Moms Blog

 

Check out these helpful books about Picky Eaters :: 

 


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