Just Eat It! Musings on Dealing With Picky Eaters

Young Girl (13-14) Holding Her Nose at the Dinner TableSo, it happens. You watch other parents dealing with their children’s eating preferences and you think, “That will NEVER happen in my house!” Sigh.

This is a touchy subject, I know, so I’ll ask your forgiveness for any trespasses up front. First, I should probably come clean here and say that, in my other life, I hold a Ph.D. in Developmental and Child Psychology. I’ve worked with mitigating behavior challenges and teaching others how to work with behavioral challenges for a good part of that career, so combined with my own experience as a parent I feel like I might have some useful information to share. Oh, and don’t forget the wheat/dairy/soy allergy issues that we’ve had to learn to navigate.

I am well aware that the information on “how to deal with picky eaters” is copious and often conflicting. When you’re at your wit’s end, this fact often leads to general overwhelm and perhaps even feeling helpless. How did it happen that my child is holding everyone hostage at meal time? Or, perhaps that’s a bit too dramatic and you’re just grappling with how to get something other than (insert single food that they will reliably eat here) past their lips.

To make things simple, I’ll list a couple of strategies and expand where necessary.

  • Repeated exposure to foods is really critical. I don’t have a recommended number of exposures, just keep putting it on the table.
  • Without guilt or anger, simply make tasting new foods part of the meal time routine. At our table, everything on the plate had to be tasted. In the beginning, simply putting a new food to the lips was enough. Once that happened without fuss, touching the new/rejected food to the tongue was required. This happened quickly, and often my son skipped right over the touching to the tongue to just eating a bite. No fan fare, no yelling. When the tasting had happened, we simply said, “Thank you for trying the (fill in the blank)” then resume any conversation that was in progress. You don’t need to clap or deliver overenthusiastic proclamations of what a good job the child has done.
  • If your child has a high preference food, let him or her know that “As soon as you taste _____, you may have _______.” This one usually works much more easily than you might expect. It takes the heat off of you as the “bad guy” and puts the control back in the child’s hands. It’s simple — “Sure you may have the mac and cheese, as soon as you taste that carrot.” No bargaining.

To augment what I’ve laid out above, I have a couple of recommendations about things not to do (or to consider stopping if you already resorted to these).

  • Resist the temptation to become a short order cook. Really. This doesn’t do anyone any favors in the long run.
  • Don’t make it about you. (What?? I thought everything was about me!) Seriously, please don’t tell your child that it will “make mommy/daddy happy” if they taste/eat the food or that it will “make mommy/daddy angry” if they don’t eat the food. This can create power struggles or other issues and make your child feel like they are responsible for your happiness or other emotional state.

This is really simplified, I know. I also know that not everyone will agree with what I’ve laid out here. My hope is that at least a couple of you will find some helpful information in this. Oh, and in case I’ve made this sound really easy and rosy, know that sometimes the resistance may get worse before it gets better. That’s normal. Just keep putting the food in front of them and sticking to your commitment to helping your child develop healthy eating habits.

If you’re interested in reading about another person’s experience with a picky eater, I highly recommend this series of posts on Why I Cater to My Kids, Towing a Harder Line with My Kids, and Celebrating Another Milestone with My Daughter from The Paleo Mom. Even if a Paleo lifestyle does not resonate with you, I think these illustrate some of the points that I attempted to articulate in this post.