How to Support a Selective Eater
To be honest, I’ve never really like the term “picky” when describing a child’s food preferences. It just feels like a negative label, which may actually worsen the problem by becoming a title the child identifies themself with. I prefer to use the terms “limited” or “selective” because they allow room to grow and change.
Think about all the foods you eat now that you were pretty turned off by as a child. Asparagus, olives, sardines, tomatoes, beef—those were mine! But now I enjoy all these foods. The point is that our tastes change, so if you’re currently dealing with a child who has pretty limited food preferences, don’t despair. Understand that they are still getting acquainted with a vast and mostly unfamiliar food environment, it can take some time to get comfortable with new textures and flavors, or even the way something looks.
Approaching their diet from a calm, conscious, and supportive (but never pushy) standpoint can provide them with the tools they need to expand their palate over time.
- Try to avoid catering to your child. Learning to eat and try new and unfamiliar foods is an important life skill which, unfortunately, many children are not learning these days. As a parent, I know that you want the best for you child, you want them to eat enough. So it’s easy to throw together a good ‘ole standby meal you know they will eat. Unfortunately, this will never allow children to work through their reservations of new tastes and textures and try new foods. Then before you know it, you have an even more limited eater! It’s fine to always have something on the table you know they will eat, but also be firm that what is served is served.
- Continue to expose them to “rejected” foods. If you’re sneaking a certain food into your child’s meal because it’s been rejected before, continue to also add it to their plate or the table. Let’s use cauliflower as an example. You can blend a little into a sauce or soup as a way to get some veggies in them, but at the same time, put a few piece on their plate or in a bowl on the table. Even if your child never ends up eating or liking it, the seed has been planted. The more your child sees and is exposed to a food, the more likely they will try it and maybe like it in the future!
- Eat as a family and model good eating behavior. With busy and competing schedules, eating together can be a real challenge. Maybe you already ate your meal or you aren’t eating until later, but much as you can, you should at least sit down and have a side dish with them. It’s important that they see you eating and have you present while they’re eating. This is another opportunity to demonstrate the type of behavior you hope to instill in your child.
- Get your child involved in the kitchen. When I used to teach kids cooking classes, parents would tell me they were amazed by what their children were trying that they never like before! Once children are involved in the process of handling the food, learning different cooking techniques, and seeing their peers trying different foods, they are much more likely to get through their barriers around food. Children of all ages can participate in some way. And now that I’m a mom, I know that recommendations from others outside the family are often more easily accepted. There are even virtual cooking classes available such as https://kidscookrealfood.com/.
- Maintain a division of responsibility in feeding. I learned this from the dietitian Ellyn Satter in her book,Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense, and it has served me well as both a parent and a nutritionist. The basic principle is for parents or the caregivers to decide on the when, what, and where of eating while the child decides on whether (they will eat) and how much. Children of most ages like to assert their independence, and once you begin to force them to eat, many will push back. Don’t worry, it is very rare for a child to go too long without eating or starve themselves. Most children will eat when they get hungry enough. And when provided with good, whole, real food, children have good instincts on what their body needs at that particular time.
It’s important to continue exposing children to a wide variety of healthy foods. Keep in mind that most “kid-friendly” foods like juice boxes, chicken fingers, fruit snacks, or pre-made lunch packs are an invention of the food industry, all food can be kid-friendly food! These processed options are also marketed to be much healthier than they really are. Use a careful eye when shopping and always try to feed your child wholesome foods in their least processed form when possible.
Having a selective eater in the family doesn’t have to make mealtimes stressful. Follow these helpful tips to support your little one’s tastes, before you know it they may even be a more adventurous eater than you!