The Agony of Picky Eating : A Different Approach

Many parents, at some point or another, struggle with having a picky eater among their kids or go through a phase where a child may refuse eating a food they used to scarf down. This can be such a different time – you worry your kiddo isn’t getting enough nutrients or is going hungry to bed at night.

You fix a dinner you know they like, but then… “Yucky! Want peanut butter jelly.” You take a deep breath and fix them the sandwich – you feel relieved they’re going to bed with at least something in their stomach. You’ll try again tomorrow.

You think back to your own childhood – sitting at the dinner table with a plate of food that you really hated. You hear your parents saying, “Eat it or starve!” “There are hungry children who would be happy to have that food”. You went to bed hungry, or you swallowed food that you still can’t stomach to this day. In your brain, you swore you would never make your kids eat what they did not want to eat.

picky eatingWhat if there was a better way to approach picky eating? Turns out – there is! A couple of years ago, an Instagram friend posted about a picky eating page that was giving her good advice. I spent several hours scrolling the content and checking out pages with similar ideas. They all lead to some helpful ways to help kids have a better relationship with food and eating.

A little back story – I grew up as quite the picky eater myself, but I’ve really come a long way. I still don’t like salad, ketchup, fish, and most green vegetables. I went from only cheese pizza to having toppings, added onions and peppers to my burrito at Chipotle, sauce for chicken nuggets vs plain, etc. My mom often jokes that she doesn’t recognize me when I eat sometimes.

Disclaimer: I am not a feeding therapist or nutritionist.  I am simply a mom of three – all with their own picky eating habits, most of which they have gotten from me. This is what I have learned along the way.

A popular theory is the idea of Division of Responsibility developed by Ellyn Satter. At quick glance, it sounds insane. But try it! “Parents provide – kids decide”. As the parents, you decide what to serve and when to serve it. Kids decide how much to eat and what to eat off what is served. This is the basic idea. You can find more detail to this theory on Ellyn Satter’s website.

An example of this idea is this: When your child refuses to eat the dinner you prepared – which included at least one safe food (a standby you know they will eat – like applesauce or yogurt) but asks for cereal 10 minutes after excusing them from the table or demands a PBJ instead of the meat, potatoes, and vegetables you lovingly prepared, you can say “That sounds yummy! We can see about that for a meal/snack later! Right now, you can have water until (time) when it’s time for (meal)”

This lets them know that food is coming but these are the times it comes. I know, it can feel mean and heartless to deny them food. You’re not! You are teaching them to eat when the food is served and there will always be another meal later. If they chose not to eat, that is ok with you, but you will not be serving them something special or at another time until the next meal or snack. It may take a few occurrences of hangry children for them to get the idea, but they will eventually get the point.

If its dinnertime you’re worried about and them going to bed hungry, there is the bedtime snack. A small snack before bed that is food they will eat but can be considered “boring”. A banana and a glass of milk, peanut butter toast with applesauce, berries and yogurt or cheese and crackers with some dried fruit. This way they have something in their stomach before bed, but they didn’t get the PBJ/cereal they originally asked for. It’s a win for both teams.

 “One polite bite/clean your plate before you can leave the table/eat it or starve!” all put pressure on kids to try things they are not familiar or comfortable with yet. Repeated exposure and letting kids learn to like foods at their own pace without feeling guilty that “starving children would be happy to have it” will help them. Kids are more likely to try new foods at their own pace without pressure after plenty of repeated exposure. It may feel like forever, but one day it will pay off when they pick up their fork and start chowing.

Providing tasty, satisfying meals is one of the most important things a parent does. But so is teaching them to eat when it is time and how to get used to new foods (even if it does take a while). Keep these ideas in the back of your mind and hopefully they will help you as much as they have helped me!

Bon Appetit!

Pages to check out : SnackswithJax, Feeding Littles, KidsEatInColor, chikidsfeeding



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Samantha was born and raised in Cedar Rapids. She grew up around a large, crazy, loving extended family that has been getting together every Sunday for over 40 years. She spent six years working for The Walt Disney Company - where she met her husband directly in front of Cinderella Castle. They moved back to Iowa in 2016 to be near family and have three kids- a boy and two girls . Autism awareness & understanding is a close cause to her heart as two of her kids have autism. When not working or spending time with family, Samantha enjoys reading, listening to music or a podcast, cooking, baking, and binge-watching shows with her husband.

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