How to be supportive of a family with a picky eater

When beginning my career I really thought that I knew everything I needed to raise kids to be wonderful adventurous eaters. I had been told to involve kids in the process of making food, try new foods multiple times, and do not make them a separate meal.  My career led me into pediatrics where I consistently educated families on these ideas. Then I became a mother and while my oldest did not give me too many problems with feeding, my younger child felt he needed to provide me his own form of professional development when it came to eating. I became frustrated because all of the things that I had been taught were not working with him. The other thing that was frustrating was everyone wanted to offer advice, which left me feeling judged. This further increased my stress level about the situation.  That is why I am  writing this post about how to not only be supportive of the child, but also of the parent in the face of picky eating.

Stop giving advice or intervening if a child is not eating at a family gathering, unless you are specifically asked.  Respect how the parent is handling the situation.  I can tell you from personal experience that family gatherings are the most stressful situation when you have a child that is a picky eater and the more others bring attention to the problem the worse the parent feels.

Do not offer the child a dessert for eating their meal without discussing this with the parent.  I typically will let my children have dessert with their meals because I do not want them to have that food elevated over the rest of the food.  In the end I have found that my children still eat the same amount from all food groups whether I make them wait for the dessert or serve it with the meal.  This is how I desired to handle my son during his very picky phase and nothing made me more frustrated than when someone told him to eat his meal before getting the dessert.

Do not force anything on the child’s plate that they do not want. Some may view this as letting the child have too much control, but per Ellyn Satter, who is the dietitian and feeding expert behind the Ellyn Satter Institute, there is a division of responsibility that parents should follow.  When using the division of responsibility it is the parent’s job to determine what will be served, when it will be served, and where it will be served.  The child’s job is to determine how much they will eat and whether they will eat (https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/how-to-feed/the-division-of-responsibility-in-feeding/).  It is recommended that families serve meals family style as this increases the exposure and allows the child a greater chance to interact with the food.  Therefore, caregivers or other adults in the child’s life should not plate the food for the child, but should decide what will be be served and allow the child to determine if it goes on the plate.  If the child refuses to place foods on their plate a caregiver could suggest another opportunity for exposure.  Examples of this include asking the child to pass the food to another family member at the table or providing them the option to place the food they are unsure of on a small plate next to their eating plate to provide them the opportunity to explore the food without expectation of eating it.

Do ask the parent if there is anything that you can do to help support them. If you sense that a parent is becoming frustrated or self-conscious with their child’s eating during the meal ask the parent if there is any way you can help.  Children can display picky eating for a number of reasons.  Sensory issues can be one of those reasons, which means that the child may have an uncomfortable feeling when eating or they are easily bothered or distracted by the environment around them.  Social gatherings can often be loud and this may make eating challenging for some children.  Directing a family to a place that is quieter for eating may be helpful.  An additional issue is that some kids may not like their food touching other food and do better with a divided plate and this could also be offered to the family if that is what they request. 

Overall, the very best way you can support a family who has a child that is perceived to be a picky eater is to not judge them.  Listen if they choose to share with you, but do not offer advice unless asked.  Parents of picky eaters are often taught by professionals, such as myself, to relax at mealtimes and this will help your child feel less pressure.  It is very hard to relax when you feel judged.