5 Steps for Curing the Picky Eater

It happened with the first client family that I took on right out of school. I whipped up a delicious meal only for it to be abruptly turned down by the kiddos. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches ensued, and they were off to a different room in less than 5 minutes. 

I've seen parents try everything from bribery to trickery, promising candy if broccoli is eaten, or hiding spinach in brownies.

I’ve seen parents accept that their children have an innate preference for bland foods (not true).  And I’ve seen adults still suffering from food pickiness of their own; cringing at the thought of olives, broccoli, and even brown rice (gasp!). 

PICKY EATING PLAGUES ANYONE FROM AGE 2 TO 92.

It doesn’t have to be this way. 

Your kids, your spouse, and your 92 year old grandma can (and should) LEARN to like any food under the sun, and SO CAN YOU.

We come into the world with a preference for sweet, and an aversion to bitterness and sourness.  But everything else is LEARNED.  This means, food tastes can (and I’ll argue should) be TAUGHT. 

You are not born loving swiss chard any more than you are born loving ground up pig ears (aka hotdogs). These are things you learn. 

5 Steps that will cure your picky eater if done consistently, patiently, and with loads of love. 

1.  EXPOSE YOUR KIDS (AND YOURSELF) TO A VARIETY OF FOODS - REPEATEDLY.

Familiarity breeds affection, and repeated exposure to a new food creates familiarity. Humans (especially children) prefer foods that are familiar.

It can take up to 15 tastes of a food before a child (or adult) will become familiar.  The more you taste a food, the more familiar and comfortable you become.  The more comfortable you are, the more you will start to love it. 

Most parents give up on a food if their baby doesn’t like it after 2 or 3 tries. The result? Picky eaters! Giving food that your child doesn’t accept over and over again may seem maddening, exhausting, and not worth the effort, but this process IS the education. 

So, next time Lena takes one bite, makes a face, and doesn’t want any more, don’t be surprised, and do not give up. EXPECT that this will happen.

Smile and say “this is summer squash! We’ll try it again in a few days, and eventually I promise you will love it!”   

Take Action:  Implement the "taste it" rule.  Gently but firmly encourage your children (or yourself) to simply take one taste.  Don’t worry about their reaction, but celebrate the success of taking a taste and remember: every taste is one step closer to acceptance.

 

2. STOP SNACKING. IT IS GOOD TO COME TO THE TABLE HUNGRY.

Guess what? Our children’s bodies do not need a steady stream of goldfish crackers to survive!  Gasp! 

Your child can make it from your house to the park without eating. She can go down the slide without string cheese in her hand. And she can make it from breakfast to lunch without a yogurt squeeze pack (let’s be honest, most of that yogurt ends up on her shirt, on the stroller, or smeared on the side of your car door anyway).

Any food tastes better when you are hungry.  When your kids come to the table hungry, they are less likely to reject the food. 

We are firm believers in 3 square meals a day, with one (very light) snack in the afternoon if needed - but at least 3 hours before dinner.  

Think back to a time you went to your favorite restaurant.  Remember how excited you were for that meal? But while waiting, you mindlessly filled up on 5 pieces of bread dipped in oil. When your meal came, you could barely eat half of it, and you did not really enjoy it.

How did you feel after that meal? Full but not satisfied?  Are you irritated just thinking about it? That meal should have been delicious, and you should have scarfed it down. Instead you filled up on bread, which did not give your body the nutrients it needed - leaving you full, but not nourished and satisfied.  

Take Action:  Let yourself, or your kids get a little hungry. How? NO SNACKING.  It’s OK and GOOD to come to the table hungry. 

The first day or two may be rough, but don’t give in. Before you know it, your kids will be coming to the table ready and eager to eat. This will also make your life easier and cleaner. It’s a win win win.

3. DO NOT USE FOOD AS A BRIBE OR REWARD.

This one is serious. When you start using food to make your child feel better, emotional eating problems can and often do arise, and these dependencies follow them into adulthood. 

Your child will quickly figure out that the key to an ice cream sunday is a temper tantrum in the grocery store or refusing to pick up his toys. Food the becomes a source of comfort or a reward, instead of a source of nourishment, pleasure, and celebration. 

If you are thinking, crap, I’m 28 years old and have a serious emotional eating problem. It’s too late for me. Chin up my sweet, it’s not too late. You can re-train your brain and your schedule too. Schedule your eating times (see point above). Have a small dessert with dinner (dark chocolate square usually does the trick).  And if you start feeling sad or feel like you “deserve something” - call a friend, take a hot bath, go for a walk, cuddle your pup, snuggle your spouse, meditate, read, do something you love, and drink a cup of your favorite tea (cravings often come from being dehydrated).

So next time Charlie get’s a booboo, offer him a big hug, a warm bath, or a very special story (kids love stories about when YOU were a kid).

Take Action:  Make a list of 10 ways you can comfort and reward your children. (Note - not EVERYTHING warrants a reward. Over praising can be a problem too). The next time your child (or you) needs a little pick-me-up, try something from your list.

4. EVERYONE EATS THE SAME MEAL. NO ALTERNATIVES 

Remember those peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I made? Well, at the next meal, those kiddos expected they could have whatever they wanted, and they all wanted something different. This is not sustainable for the cook, and it’s not enjoyable for anyone. 

Eating the same foods at mealtime connects you, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Think of how different you feel when you’ve eaten a bowl of cereal vs a bowl of chicken soup. Now think about how differently everyone in your family feels if they’ve all eaten a different dinner. Not very harmonious and connected. 

When I did this with that first family, I made sure to include an item in the meal that everyone would love.  Addie loved sausage, Rosie loved noodles, and Toby loved avocado, so I made sure all those things were incorporated in the meal. (Spaghetti with sausage and a salad topped with avocado).  Everyone had something they could eat without any fuss, which made tasting new things less scary, and saying no to alternate requests easy.

Take Action: Make one meal for your family, and do not offer any substitutes. Try to include at least one thing everyone will happily eat. Don’t stress about how much is eaten, if a food is refused (after it has been tried), simply take it away and don’t make a fuss. But do not offer an alternative. 
 

5. FOCUS ON JOY AND CONNECTION, NOT ON THE FOOD.

Dinner time is a place to share, be heard, listen, and practice being a generous human being. It is where kids learn that their thoughts, feelings, and opinions are worthy of being listened to. And it is where a healthy relationship to food is fostered, that will serve them for the rest of their lives.

With all this talk and strategy about food, the irony is, when you are at the table, you don’t want to focus so much on the food! Often times, if you leave a child alone, and let her observe you completely enjoying your food, she will get curious and give it a try themselves. Kids don’t want to be left out or left behind. 

For example, with one family I coached, we played the happy, sad, thankful game. Everyone shared one thing that happened in the day that made them happy, one thing that made them sad, and one thing they were thankful for.

Parents were able to tune in to what their kids were struggling with, kids were trained to look at things positively, could practice processing and articulating their emotions, and developed empathy skills by listening to other people's joys and struggles.  Everyone started looking forward to meal time, and were less concerned about what was being eaten. 

Take Action: Focus on connection and conversation. Implement the happy, sad, thankful game at dinner time, or any version that your family would enjoy.  Have fun and see what happens to the food on the plates! 

Wait wait, this is all great, but my kid whines that he’s hungry at 8! 

It’s bound to happen a time or two, but let me tell you, one or two nights of going to bed hungry will send a very clear message to your child, and it won’t do any harm. In fact, he will wake up hungry and eager to eat a good breakfast, setting up the next day’s eating schedule just perfectly. 

Remember, when you are first starting out, be sure to offer something you know your child will like. This will help prevent the 8pm hunger cry. 

xo,

Tina