5 MENTAL SHIFTS TO FEED YOUR PICKY EATER WITH CONFIDENCE

Are mealtimes with your kids frustrating you daily? Shift your mindset with these helpful tips so you can work with, not against, your picky eater.


BY: CRYSTAL KARGES, MS, RDN, IBCLC

Do you have a picky eater who will only eat a limited number of foods? Are you worried about how this might impact their health or growth?

Does this impact how you grocery shop and what you make for mealtimes? Do you feel like a short-order cook trying to get your child to eat?

If you answered yes to these questions and feel like mealtimes are a power struggle, know you are not alone.

Picky or selective eating is common among kids, but knowing how to best approach this can be daunting.

Studies have found that between 13% and 22% of children have been reported to be “picky eaters” by caregivers, which includes:

  • Consumption of a limited variety of foods
  • Requiring foods prepared in specific ways
  • Expressing strong likes and dislikes for food
  • Throwing tantrums when denied preferred foods

If you can relate to this, these behaviors have undoubtedly made food and mealtimes stressful for you and your family as you learn how to best navigate this.

As a parent, you likely just want your kid to be healthy and enjoy food, but this can seem far-fetched when your child won’t move beyond the handful of foods they will eat.

However, even if your child’s preferred foods are limited to the same few things (cue chicken nuggets and mac n’ cheese, anyone?), with a few simple shifts, you can feel more confident in how to get a picky child to eat. Here’s how you can get become more confident in feeding your picky eater at mealtimes.

1. Give your kids multiple opportunities to interact with new foods without any pressure to eat.

At the first signs of food rejection, it’s easy to assume that your child doesn’t like something, right? Some of these obvious signs might be:

  • Throwing food
  • Pushing food off a plate
  • Whining, protesting
  • Picking at food
  • Food refusal

Let’s be real: it’s hard to be on the receiving end of food refusal, no matter how old your child may be. So why would you keep offering the same food your child is telling you they DON’T want to eat?

The important thing to remember here is that learning to eat new foods is a skill that kids are developing. Like any new skill, it takes time, practice, and repetition.  Think about teaching your child how to ride a bike: Would you give up if your child fell? Of course not! You innately understand that falling is part of the process of learning, and you would help your child get back on again.

Look at eating (especially new foods) in the same way. Your child may need repeated exposure to new foods without any form of pressure to feel confident enough to start exploring them. Even if a child is not actually eating the foods they don’t like or are unfamiliar with, exposure to these foods is helping them learn. The key here is zero pressure on your part: no tricking, bribing, promoting, etc. These tactics might seem like they will help your kids eat, but this will always backfire in the end.

2. Allow your child to learn how to eat new foods in progressive steps.

Kids will actually progress through different stages of interacting with new foods before they actually consider eating it. So even if your child isn’t consuming the food itself, any interactions with that food are signs that they are learning, progressing, and increasing their comfortability with that food.

When you think about your child learning to eat new foods, think about it like climbing a ladder. When they master one step, they can move on to the next step. Keep in mind that learning to eat new foods is a skill that your kids are constantly building. And with any new skill, there are steps of progression to building confidence and mastering that skill. Food is the exact same way.

3. Expose your child to different foods outside of mealtimes to boost their confidence and curiosity.

Anytime your child has the opportunity to interact with food, they are building their confidence and familiarity. As you go through this process, keep in mind that a child does not have to actually be eating new or unfamiliar foods to be learning and building new skills around food. The key is to expose them to food in neutral settings, which can naturally help them feel more comfortable and curious.

Exposing kids to new foods outside of mealtimes can be an easy way to help them interact with food. These can include things like:

  • Grocery shopping
  • Cooking with kids
  • Gardening
  • Farmer’s markets
  • Picking fruit/veggies
  • Sensory play with food, like letting your child measure and scoop dried beans or pasta into containers

If your child sees or interacts with a food outside of a mealtime setting, this will also help increase their familiarity with new foods. For example, if your child sees certain fruits or vegetables in a grocery store or kitchen while you’re cooking, this will be something they will more easily recognize when it appears on the dinner table.

4. Keep eating experiences positive and language around food neutral.

Having a picky eater can trigger a lot of emotions that make mealtimes stressful for everyone. Shedding light on this reality is not intended to create any shame here whatsoever – you know that it’s because you care about your kids and their well-being. However, keep in mind that kids can pick up on fears and anxieties, and this can make mealtimes harder for them.

Your kid will feel more comfortable exploring and learning about their food when mealtimes are more relaxed and positive. Start by taking the pressure off yourself can help you take the pressure off your kids. Remember, you’re not failing as a parent if you have a picky eater, and it is not your job to get your child to eat. 

Your job is to provide food and to determine the time and place you’re offering food. But it’s your child’s job to decide whether or not they even want to eat and how much they want to eat from what you have provided. When you can keep this important aspect in mind, it can help you stay in your lane and take the pressure off of you and your kids at mealtimes.

To reinforce this and to help you promote successful mealtimes and confident eaters, keep this powerful phrase in mind to tell your picky eater on repeat: “You don’t have to eat it.”

5. Build a trusting feeding relationship.

The basis of positive mealtime experiences is trust – trust that your child can eat what they need to grow at a rate that is right for them. When you feed your child from a place of trust rather than fear, you are fostering confidence in your child that will help them flourish throughout their lives.

If you are worried about your child’s stature, growth, or overall health, be aware of how these fears and anxieties may play a role in how you feed your child. It’s not uncommon for parents and caregivers to overstep their boundaries with a child when feeding from a place of fear rather than trust.

For example, if you’re worried that your child is small for their age or that they don’t eat enough, you might find yourself pressuring, coercing or bribing them at mealtimes. Even though these feeding tactics are well intended, they will almost always backfire.

When your kids can feel your trust in them to eat, this will help encourage a positive feeding environment from which they will learn about food and eating. Remember that your children have an innate ability to regulate what they need to eat to grow at a rate that is right for them. This may look different than what you might expect, but that is okay.

If you have a picky eater in your home, you may be desperate to see changes immediately. But as you walk through these steps and implement these perspective shifts in your own home, you will begin to see positive changes for your family at mealtime. And as your kids build confidence around food and feel more comfortable at the dinner table, 

This will bring the joy back to eating for everyone in your family.

Adapted from the original post.
HEADER IMAGE: ANTON DARIUS

Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Board Certified Lactation Consultant, & mama of 5. With a virtual nutrition practice, Crystal helps overwhelmed mamas nurture a peaceful relationship with food & their bodies, end the battles at the dinner table and transform their kitchens to a place of peace & joy. Learn more at Crystal Karges Nutrition.

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