Picky Eating: What I wish I would have known

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I was a pediatric dietitian for 8 years before I became a parent, therefore, I had been versed on what to say to parents of picky eaters. So, when one of my children started to communicate that eating was not a favorite activity, I thought that I could handle it.

I tried the following recommendations for picky eating:

•      Division of responsibility- This defines the role of the parent as provider of the food, the place to eat, and determines the time to eat it; and defines the child’s role to be deciding if they will eat it and how much of it, they will eat.

•      Do not use food as a reward- I will admit, I did use this technique at first, but then soon realized that it was making everything a struggle because he was always wanting to know what his “treat” would be for doing it. I am glad I stopped it.

•      Limit grazing on snacks and beverages between meals and have scheduled meals and snacks- I planned out well-balanced snacks and avoided chasing him around to get him to eat.

•      Limit distractions at the table- We ate at the table with no TV or electronics (occasionally, we might have all had dinner in front of the TV for a special occasion).

•      Do not be a short order cook- I prepared one meal and offered it…He did not eat for many meals, even though I knew he was hungry.

•      Involving him in the preparation of meals.

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I tried all of the above recommendations and my kid still hated to eat, gained weight poorly (at best), and it was all stressing me out. I even cut foods into shapes and offered foods in a fun way…he was unimpressed.

The important thing to know is that these recommendations do work for many families that struggle with picky eating. I still recommend them to the families that I work with, however, if these strategies have been tried with exhaustive efforts and the problem is not improving then other interventions need to be explored.

What I learned about picky eating:

After feeling like a complete failure as a parent and a dietitian, I decided that I needed to handle my son’s eating issues like I handled any patient case that I could not figure out. Therefore, I started to read books and research articles on the topic of picky eating. The following is what I discovered:

·         If picky eating continues, without intervention it will get worse as children get older.

·         Picky eating is many times a symptom of something. It could be a symptom of poor meal structure at home, emotional problems, sensory issues, or indicate that there is an organic problem like a food allergy or stomach problem, and they are not eating because they hurt.

·         Children experience taste in different ways as part of their genetic make-up. Some may experience the bitter taste more intensely than others, which could be why many children are not a fan of vegetables.

·         The sweet taste is preferred in young ages but declines as people get older.

·         The dislike for bitter taste may be a protective mechanism for children because the taste of bitter indicates that something is not good for you.

·         Do not try to make big changes when trying new foods, but small changes to the foods that they are already accepting. This is a concept known as food chaining. For example, if a child loves crackers and chips and you try to give them a kale salad, they mostly likely will see it as too different, but you may be able to offer them a kale chip.

Click  here  for resources on picky eating

Click here for resources on picky eating

In our case, my son went to feeding therapy with an Occupational Therapist. It was there that we realized he had some sensory issues and once this was discovered I could see how some of this affected his eating. He did not like wearing certain types of clothes and socks. He also, had a hard time when entering a new situation just as he hard time with new food. Once we started addressing him as a whole child and not just as a kid that did not eat well or gain weight, I could start to relax. He then started to do a little better with eating.

Now that he is older, my son can tell me that he does not prefer slimy foods and he like soups that are smooth and not chunky. He can also state that he is nervous around new foods, but we can talk about ways to decrease his anxiety.

If you are struggling with a picky eater:

·         If you have not implemented the Division of Responsibility and the other recommendations first mentioned in this post, I would start with that and be consistent.

·         If picky eating persists despite all of your best efforts, speak with a dietitian to review the current diet and consider a referral to an occupational therapist to determine if there are any sensory issues that are affecting feeding.

·         Speak with your pediatrician if you have any medical concerns related to your child’s eating. An example of this would be frequent stomach aches, difficulty swallowing, or lack of growth.

·         Relax!

·         Accept your child for who they are and do not define them by what they eat.

·         Do not label them a picky eater. I prefer the term cautious eater.


Where we are now:

My son is a very funny boy who loves sports and animals. His favorite thing to do is shoot baskets in our driveway. He wants to be a veterinarian when he grows up and live on a ranch with 20 dogs (notice how I did not define him by how and what he eats).

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