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Successful Eating Habits for a Picky Eater

Feeding strategies for picky eaters

“My child was always a good eater, and now she won’t eat anything I give her! She is such a picky eater!”

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this from parents over the course of my career, and I wish I had a simple quick fix for it.  Having picky eaters at mealtimes can cause frustration and stress for ALL family members, just not mom and dad. But taking charge now can hopefully get your child back on track so you aren’t battling mealtimes in 3 years from now. 

Many toddlers seem to become a picky eater around the age of 1 to 2 years old, but it can also happen at a later stage such as 4 or 5 years. Toddlers taste buds do change on a weekly, even daily basis, so keep in mind their “favorite foods” will come and go, and then come and go again.  But much of what is going can be testing boundaries, but there are cases when a picky eater is more than just that*. 

*If your child has a medical condition such as GERD, oral motor skill problems, food aversions, or a sensory processing disorder its recommended to work with a feeding team that may consist of any of the following: speech language therapist, occupational therapist, registered dietitian and of course your pediatrician. 

Children this age are naturally neophobic to food, meaning they are afraid of new foods. This is a common response and they will hopefully grow out of it sooner than later. Practice these recommendations to help with your picky eater and possible fear of new foods. 

Model! Studies have shown that children as young as 2 form dietary preferences that mimic what their parents are eating. So before you try to change your child’s eating behavior, the first step is to take a look at your own habits first. Make sure you practice what you preach! If you show excitement over eating healthy foods, in time they will too!  Family meals, while not always possible with schedules, is also another chance to model good eating habits.  Aim for this has many times per week as you can, and sit at the kitchen or dining table versus on the couch or anywhere else.  And keep the distractions to a minimum!  This means no toys, electronics or TV. 

Start early! Exposing your child to healthy fruits and vegetables at a very young age will help your child develop a larger range of food preferences. The choices they make later in childhood, as well as adulthood, usually mimic those early-on food exposures. In fact, many pediatricians are now making recommendations to start with vegetables, such as sweet potato and avocado, when introducing solid food to infants rather than the traditional single-grain cereal such as rice. If you are already beyond these years, use the other tips listed below.

Be patient! Research has shown that it can take multiple exposures (5 to 100 times) to new foods before a child learns to like it. Eating habits are learned behaviors, so keep offering in a non-forceful way. With a positive approach, ask your child to try the new food, but remember it will be up to them if they choose to eat it. A small bite may turn into a big bite after they’ve seen it a few times, so don’t give up!

Encourage! Encourage to TRY or sample all the foods on the plate, but it is very important to not force the children to do so; they will only resist more which will most likely decrease their liking of that food. Encourage not force. 

Give Choices! Always have something on the plate that your child will eat, and have 1-2 new items on the plate in small portions. Even if they don’t eat the new food, they are staying familiar with the look, smell and texture of the food. Do not worry if the food ends of in the garbage. If you stop serving those new foods, the chances of them ever being eaten is pretty slim! 

Do Not Give In! If your child only wants to eat 2 or 3 foods, I highly suggest not giving in. Give one of these as a choice as listed above, but that is it. If you give in at every meal to the favorite foods, the child will learn that if he holds out long enough he’ll get those favorite items. 

Do Not Reward With Food! Take caution with offering food as a reward. When this occurs, the reward food becomes even more desirable to the child, resulting in the food you are trying to encourage becoming less desirable. This makes encouraging much more difficult!

Steps to Improve Eating Habits in Your Picky Eater:

Feeding involves all the senses, not just taste. Have your child watch you prepare meals and ask him to touch it. If he is not ready to do that, have him touch the food with his fork. Here is the complete set of steps: 

1. Touch the food with a fork

2. Touch/feel with hands

3. Smell it

4. Kiss it (bring to lips)

5. Lick it (touch with tongue)

6. Put food in mouth and take right out again

The goal is by the time you reach step 6, he will be very comfortable with the food and ready to take his first bite. Even if it’s just a small one.  Once the child take this first bite of a new food, try to keep the food in rotation often so it stays familiar.  Keep in mind this could takes weeks, or longer. 

If you are overwhelmed with your picky eater, and mealtimes are turning into madness, start at the beginning. Take your children with you to the grocery store or farmers market and get them involved. Although it might be faster to do the shopping alone, this will save you future headaches if they start eating better. Avoid the processed aisles as much as possible and spend some time exploring the produce section. Let them help you choose fruits and vegetables and get them to assist you in the kitchen at mealtimes. This will empower them even at a young age!

be well.