I did a search this morning for blog posts about picky eaters.
And now I feel compelled to write a blog post about picky eaters.
I came across sooo many shared experiences, so many opinions and tactics. Some of them inspired me, some made me laugh, some made me sigh in solidarity, and some of them disturbed me quite deeply.
A few of the thoughts I found include…
“Picky eaters are spoiled kids.”
“They’re manipulating the parent.”
“As the parent, I will win this fight.”
If you hadn’t already guessed, these are a few of the thoughts that I’ve personally come to find unsettling and potentially harmful. (See this post I wrote about fighting battles with your kids) But…as a mom of a picky eater (and a mom of a kid that will Hoover down anything you offer), I understand the immense frustration that comes with a “selective eater” in the family.
So, here we go with links, data, research, and my own experiences and opinions!
Let’s start with a few of the different types of picky eating.
Sensory-dependent eaters reject a food because of its texture or smell (“Yuck, slimy!”).
Preferential eaters shun new or mixed foods.
General perfectionists have specific needs, such as foods not touching one another.
Behavioral responders may cringe or gag when right is not “right” (“Ham and cheese should be on white bread, not brown!”) or may refuse to come to the table before they even know what’s for dinner.
It’s not always about how a food tastes. Appearance, routine, personality type, mood, energy level, etc… They all play a roll. Your child might not be eating because they’re hungry and feeling tired, weak, or just bummed out. Consider all of these things, not just the number or forkfuls going into the kid’s mouth.
Could it be simple biology?
Children are born with natural, even reflexive, aversions to potential dangers. This article by Parenting Science explains this idea really well.
Bitterness is a signal of potential toxicity, and kids—with their smaller bodies and less-developed capacities for detoxification—are more vulnerable to the effects of toxins.
It wouldn’t surprise me if natural selection has equipped children with an extra-sensitive system for rejecting bitter tastes (Glenndinning 1994).
There’s also a possible genetic cause.
The researchers found that kids who possessed at least one copy of the bitter-sensitive allele were more likely to detect bitterness at low concentrations. In addition, these kids reported preferences for sweeter drinks and cereals with higher sugar content. They were also less likely to name milk or water as a favorite beverage.
Understand that picky eating is not always just about food and stubbornness.
About 20% of the children were picky eaters, meaning they either ate only a restricted number of foods or could not eat with others because of their limited range of food preferences. Only about 3% fell into the latter category of severe selective eaters. Those children were more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression or social anxiety. Even children in the moderately picky eating group were more likely to show symptoms of depression, social anxiety or attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder compared to children who weren’t picky eaters.
Picky eating may seem insignificant, but it deserves (needs) to be handled appropriately with measured and thoughtful methods.
One also can’t help but wonder if these disorders are a correlation, caused by nutrition issues, or a result of emotional, mental, and physical stress stemming from unhealthy methods and situations. (e.g., forced eating)
Understand that picky eating is often a perceived problem rather than an actual problem.
The majority of children between one and five years of age who are brought in by their parents for refusing to eat are healthy and have an appetite that is appropriate for their age and growth rate. Unrealistic parental expectations may result in unnecessary concern, and inappropriate threats or punishments may aggravate a child’s refusal to eat.
Parental efforts to make small eaters eat more may have the opposite effect. Caregivers may pressure children to eat without appreciating the physiological decrease in appetite that occurs between one and five years of age (4). Children’s appetites tend to be erratic during these years. Although toddlers and preschoolers vary considerably in their intakes at meals during the day, their total daily energy intake remains fairly constant (6). Healthy children have a remarkable capacity to maintain their energy balance over time when offered an assortment of nutritious foods (6). Parents who believe that their child is abnormally small or nutritionally at risk are more likely to overreact to variations in the child’s appetite (7).
And then there are all these factors…
- Kids and babies go through growth spurts and periods of decreased appetites. The medical field is well aware that weight gain slows and appetite decreases in children of a certain age. This is normal.
- All animals are born knowing when they are hungry and when they are full. Forcing a child to eat when they aren’t hungry and denying foods when they are hungry teaches the child to ignore their body’s natural cues and creates unhealthy eating standards during their most formative years.
- Children who are heavily pressured to eat foods actually eat less. Source
- Adding conflict, anger, frustration, feelings of defeat and marginalization, and fear do not make for a healthy eater.
- Some children have legitimate, sometimes severe, sensory processing disorders that can make mealtime an anxiety ridden experience full of mental turmoil and physical discomfort due to their brain’s inability to process what their senses are experiencing.
Here’s what you can do
- Present new foods as standalone items. For example, offer just peas rather than peas & carrots or peas inside a casserole.
- Present new foods over and over. The general consensus is that most people, children included, need to be exposed to a new food about ten times before developing a taste for it.
- Offer new, even unfavorable foods alongside other preferred foods. Hate broccoli but love carrots? Serve both.
- Include children in food preparations.
- Accept a child’s preferences and experiences as legitimate, just as you would an adult’s.
- Model good eating habits and behaviors.
- Make meals an enjoyable and positive family time.
- Treat eating as you would any other learning experience. The brain power and dexterity to tie shoes doesn’t develop overnight. The ability to process and enjoy spinach may not come overnight either.
- Never force foods, especially with the “clean your plate or else” method.
As I said… I have a picky eater. The kid that hates trying new foods, the kid that is adamant she doesn’t like a certain food even though she’s only seen it once on a Food Network show. The kid that will spend an hour saying, “I’m still eating!” even though nothing has been touched on her plate.
My experience has taught me that choosing to fight this battle is what creates and perpetuates the battle.
“Winning” and having your sobbing child finally swallow that last bite of chicken before they slump out of their chair and run away to find a comforting toy while you toss dishes into the sink because it’s 9PM, and this is absolutely friggin ridiculous… It’s not worth it.
You didn’t win. You once again cemented the child’s feeling that dinner time sucks and food makes people feel bad.
I feel like I can say these things, even though some may find it to be a little harsh, because I’ve done it too. I’m now in repair and recovery mode with my child, and I want to spare other families from enduring the “just three more bites” game yet again.
Take everything you think you know about picky eaters and dump it. Parent your child. Look at them, not the plate. Be the encourager, the sympathizer, the example, the helper. Let’s lead our children to victory instead of demanding victory over them.
I’d love to hear some other thoughts and experiences. What’s worked for you? What’s failed miserably? What were your experiences at mealtimes as a child?