Whether it’s someone who would rather eat macaroni and cheese 365 days a year than try something green, someone who’s idea of an exotic meal is a PB&J with crunchy Jif or someone who just doesn’t like the look of most foods, everyone knows at least one picky eater. Most finicky feeders are choosiest during childhood and grow out of their habits and into healthy, well-nourished adults over time. While it’s comforting to know that there is likely light at the end of the tunnel, having a picky eater can be stressful for the entire family.
Mealtime, considered by many to be a relaxing highlight of the day, often becomes a time of strained patience and stubborn resolve on both sides of the spoon. Parents waver between keeping the peace around the table and ensuring that their child does not consist on chicken nuggets alone and children begin to dread dinnertime like a chemistry test. This scenario is not uncommon. Picky eaters are prevalent and more often than not are able to become more adventurous eaters as they get older. In the meantime, there are ways to make mealtimes a little more bearable for everyone involved. Food can indeed be fun.
Exposure is Everything:
Many choosy feeding habits are derived from some kind of fear. Whether it’s a flavor, texture or smell issue, something about these ‘no way’ foods is scary to our picky eater. The best way to get over these fears is through many small, repeated interactions with these foods, no matter how low-key. Consistently serve picky eaters a very tiny portion of every ‘family food’ at meals whenever possible. Make it clear to the child that they do not need to eat the food, but they are expected to tolerate it on the plate. From here more challenging interactions with food can be encouraged (smelling, touching, kissing etc.)
Play is Placating:
Playing with food is often the first step in eliminating fear. Create messy activities involving some less-favored foods that focus solely on getting the child to interact with what they normally do not eat. Put some food coloring in yogurt and finger paint, make shapes out of wet noodles, find ways to make the food about the activity and not about the eating. Should some spontaneous snacking occur, fantastic!
Try to build bridges to new foods based on what your child already enjoys. If they enjoy raw apples, consider other crunchy sweet fruits like pears or melon. The leap from chicken nuggets to smoked salmon is probably too overwhelming, but fish sticks might be manageable. Remember that these changes, while humble to onlookers, are huge for kids.
Variety Variety Variety:
One common side effect of picky eating is ‘food jagging’, tiring of and eliminating foods that are eaten too often. It happens to all of us, but it can be particularly dangerous for picky eaters who already have a limited diet. Encourage your child to help make their favorite foods a bit different every day. Maybe cut fruits up in a different way, add some food coloring, or sprinkle on a little cheese. These small changes can be the difference between keeping a food in the repertoire and kicking it to the curb.
Patience and Practice: Growing into a more adventurous eater is a long process. The fears and aversions that children have developed have been ingrained for years, and breaking these habits will take time. Consistently making an effort to slowly challenge these fears will indeed pay off.