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How to Handle Picky Eaters

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When you have a picky eater in your family, it can seem like you’ve tried it all to get them to eat their vegetables, proteins, or something new and unusual. You might have tried threats (“you’re going to bed hungry!”), bribery (“eat your vegetables and you can have dessert”), or it’s even possible you’ve done things like forcing your child to eat an untouched dinner for breakfast the next morning.

We’ve all been there, or have thought about it! Generally speaking however, these approaches are not helpful, and may in fact exacerbate the eating problem. They are also not compassionate ways of interacting with our children and may negatively impact the parent child relationship.

Sometimes, we so want our child to eat something – anything - that we allow them to go back to their old stand-by’s like crackers, chips, or chicken nuggets, and then we feel guilty for “caving” afterwards.

The mealtime battles may seem like a never-ending struggle, especially if you have a pediatrician telling you that your child needs more protein or needs to eat fewer sweets.

You might feel a high level of stress at meal times, as if each meal is a chance for you to “get it right” with your child, to get in the “required” vegetables and proteins over the course of a meal.

Emotional Strain of Picky Eaters:

This can be a lot of emotional strain on a parent. Even when it’s not mealtime, we may worry about what it is that our children are eating (or aren’t eating), and we may have turned this into a source of contention with our children, too.

The Food Wars may be further complicated by a spouse’s opinion – either in the sense of not understanding that it’s an issue, or that he or she has different rules and approaches for mealtimes, further exacerbating the stress level.

A Parent’s Own Food Struggles:

Furthermore, we might have our own history with food issues, like eating too much or even anorexia or bulimia. We may see our child’s own struggles with food as an extension of our own, and worry that our children will grow up with issues around food, also.

However, there are some ways that we can make meal times into a fun and inviting experience again, and even let go of some of our anxiety and concerns.

Tips for Picky Eaters:

Keep Reintroducing Foods, And In Various Ways

Carrots, for example, can be pureed, mixed with butter, or served cold, etc. The new science says that a child might have to be introduced to a food twelve (!!) times before they will eat it.

Kids are not born reciting an alphabet: it takes time and practice to read and learn a new language. Similarly, it requires time and patient practice to establish a healthy foundation for eating. Have faith in the family’s ability to make eating together enjoyable for everyone.

Says Clancy Clash Harrison, a pediatric feeding therapist and registered dietician.

Don’t Make Meal Times Into A Battleground Or A Negotiation

Provide each person with all of the same foods on their plates, and allow them to eat whatever they would like to eat. I know this is hard, but it can be a way for us to release our own levels of anxiety, too.

A child will eat when they are hungry! And, as long as you are providing all healthy items at your table, then whatever part of the meal they eat will be good for them.

(One trick: keep away from breads and pastas at dinner, since kids seem to fill up on these starchy and low nutrient value items.) Talk to your partner, too, and make sure that they are on board with the same strategy.

Try Not To Fix Separate Meals For Kids Versus Adults

The entire family can eat the same things (though this may mean you will have to add extra hot sauce to a bland meal for yourself!)

Give Thanks

Before each meal, try setting an intention or saying a prayer together with your family, perhaps acknowledging that the meal is a celebration of togetherness, a time to take nutrients into our body, and a time to give thanks for the people, plants, and animals who have contributed to the meal. 

Congratulate Yourself On Your Successes

Look at the bigger picture, and try to see your child’s intake over a weekly period, not a daily period. Are they getting some vegetables, some proteins?

Congratulate yourself on a job well done, knowing that your children are doing well overall. You may even want to note down the small successes, like “Bobby ate three green beans without me even asking!” or “We all enjoyed a less stressful mealtime today.”

Getting Help:

If you feel like you’ve already “tried everything” and still aren’t getting anywhere, or you feel as if your anxiety and fear over your children’s eating habits are interfering with enjoying your children, it may be helpful to speak with a professional psychotherapist.

At Nassau Guidance & Counseling, we work with both individuals and families on all sorts of emotionally charged situations, including eating disorders and family conflict.

We also work with children and parenting issues, and we look forward to helping you and your family move towards enjoyable meals and lifelong healthy habits!

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