Picky eating behaviors are normal
If you think your child is a picky eater, you are in good company! About half of parents report that they have at least one child who is a picky eater. Parenting a picky eater can be frustrating and causes a lot of anxiety for both parents and children. In this post, we’re going to talk about why picky eating is so common in children and give you three tips to help reduce your child’s picky eating behaviors.
What makes a child a picky eater?
It is completely normal for your toddler to start turning up her nose at foods she once enjoyed. Researchers believe that this phenomenon, called neophobia or the fear of new foods, is a hard-wired developmental stage that served to protect young children. How so? Well, imagine you are parenting in the age of the hunter-gatherer and you are taking your toddler with you to forage for dinner. Her mistrust of unfamiliar foods will certainly come in handy when she stumbles upon a bush filled with bright red (and perhaps poisonous) berries.
In additional, it is also totally normal for your child’s appetite to fluctuate wildly from day to day. Babies and toddlers are able to self-regulate food intake based on their energy needs. During growth spurts, your child will have a bigger appetite, while at other times she will seem to subsist for days on bites here and there.
The picky eating worry cycle
The combination of neophobia with an inconsistent appetite can cause parents to grow concerned and then frustrated. The combination of your child’s refusal to eat many foods and your fears and frustrations can lead to a high-stress environment around mealtimes for everyone. During this time, parents often receive well-intentioned advice to use tactics that can make picky eating behaviors more deeply entrenched. A helpful illustration we use in our practice is the Picky Eating Worry Cycle, developed by Dr. Katja Rowell:
This illustration matches the experiences of many parents we see in our practice. A child develops some feeding challenge, which could be normal picky eating behaviors or something a bit more complicated or severe. Parents become worried and receive poor advice to use counterproductive feeding practices, such as:
- Pressuring: using verbal requests/bargains or other rules about eating
- Catering: Only serving what the child will eat or what the child asks for (limits variety)
- Short-order cooking: Cooking separate meals for multiple family members or offering a second meal when first is refused
- Grazing: Allowing the child to eat or have drinks besides water throughout the day and between meals and snacks
- Restriction: Limiting amount or making child follow restricted diet (e.g. low-fat, low-carb, etc.)
Most children respond to these tactics with increased resistance to eating, which then leads to increasing the concern and frustration of parents, who may then increase the pressure and continue the picky eating worry cycle.
So if these tactics don’t work, what does?
Four Positive Strategies to Help Your Picky Eater
1. Get a nutrition check-up for your picky eater
If you are worried that your child’s picky eating is causing her to not meet her nutrient needs, it is wise to get a nutrition check-up with a dietitian who specializes in child nutrition. Oftentimes, you’ll learn that she is getting enough of what she needs, even if she’s not eating all of the food groups every single day. This knowledge can help relieve your anxiety and help you learn to trust your child to eat enough of what he or she needs to grow and develop.
2. Apply the Division of Responsibility
The Division of Responsibility (DOR), developed by Ellyn Satter, is accepted as the gold-standard, best practice for helping children develop into healthy, happy eaters. It defines the roles parents and children should play in feeding:
- Parents are responsible for the what, when and where of feeding.
- Children are responsible for the whether and how much of eating.
The DOR creates positive feeding dynamics and can help reduce the anxiety and pressure parents and children feel at mealtimes. It gives parents and children clarity about their roles in feeding.
- Family meals
- Structured meals and sit-down snacks
- Parents decide the menu
- If they will eat something and how much
- Age-appropriate self-selection
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3. Provide opportunities to try new foods without pressure
It can take many neutral exposures (perhaps up to 20) for children to accept new foods. This number can be even higher if children have sensory issues. It is important to note that this is referring to neutral exposures that don’t involve pressure. Pressure to eat a food may work in the short-term, but it backfires over time. Pressure:
- Makes the food less desirable to child
- Increases food avoidance behaviors
- Interferes with child’s internal regulation
- Leads to lower intake of fruit/vegetables
- Increases risk of under- or overweight
Instead of using pressure:
- Offer the food without pressure or force
- During meals, offer at least one familiar and liked food with a less familiar or disliked food
- Practice saying: “you don’t have to eat it.”
- Reduce pressure even further by allowing your child to spit out foods. You can encourage polite use of napkin for children who are preschoolers or older
- Employ the “don’t ‘yuck’ my ‘yum’ rule.”
- Ask without pressure. Say “would you like to try it?” and allow “no thank you” to be an acceptable answer
4. Be patient with the picky eating
Once your child feels that they are in control of their food intake and the stress and pressure of mealtime is lessened, they will begin to eat the other foods provided at the meals. However, this shift may take weeks or months. Remember, how much and whether or not they eat the foods is in their control, not yours. What you can do is keep offering new foods and model the food behaviors you want for your child. Remember that children may need up to 20 neutral exposures before they accept it.
By making some adjustments at mealtime, you can empower your child to take control of their self-feeding so they can become fantastic eaters. This will not happen over night, but they will learn confidence in their food choices and one day be able to eat varied and balanced diets.
About the Author
Lauren Brauer, MS, RDN, LD
Group Specialist, Choose Food
For over 10 years I’ve had the pleasure of working with both families and individuals to help them improve their lives through nutrition. My goal as a nutrition therapist is to help people eat in a way that supports their physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health.
I am currently accepting new clients for this summer’s Picky Eating Rescue groups. Click here to learn more.