So you want a magic bullet to solve your child’s picky eating so it is gone tomorrow. I am good with that. But you know that’s unlikely to happen in one day right? The good news is there are many many things you can do. The good news is also that supporting Picky Eating has to be teamwork – but let’s get a few basics out-of-the-way first!
In Functional Nutrition for Kids, you may have seen that we are all about exploring the worlds of potential hidden in your child …
But if only he/she would eat … right?
Some studies indicate that up to 50% of preschool aged kids might be considered picky eaters. YOU know if your child is picky. A quick internet search reveals what we already know – that parents are worried sick about their kids’ eating habits.
It also reveals, on a more subtle level that parents of kids who are NOT picky eaters consider picky eating to be the result of poor parenting, and just not enough discipline. It is no wonder that behavioral strategies abound!! If you are reading this blog, I have no doubt that you have done your share of internet searching. When you ask people / experts / therapists about picky eating, chances are that you are going to get a rehash of the same behavioral strategies.
You know where I stand – I have seen that most behavior is communication, what is viewed as negative behavior is an expression of pain / discomfort / frustration or even a lack of security or safety.
Yes, sometimes children do push limits and see where they can get. And while sometimes parenting strategies that focus on behavior are valid for sure, the fact that biochemistry / digestion / trauma are never mentioned in the talk about picky eating is quite stunning if you ask me!
We are going to review the 18 most suggested tips for picky eaters and see what’s common between them, what works and what does NOT work! These are not MY tips, I agree with some of them, I actually don’t agree with some of them, but this is what people hear the most, and I was alternately fascinated, appalled and sometimes just thought “meh”….
1. Model eating new foods – that is, you the parent should model eating new foods. There is nothing wrong with this piece of advice – you are probably going to find it everywhere. This is actually a pretty sound piece of advice. But let us talk about what it really is saying. If your child is seeing you be a sugar addict, eating the same few tired vegetables day in and out, live on coffee, do you really think they are going to try new foods? Children, as you know, do not do as you say, but do as you do. When someone says “model eating new foods” what they are really saying is that show your child that you can go outside your comfort zone to eat that TARO, that RUTABAGA, that squid (if you are not vegetarian, of course).
2. Combine a disliked food with a liked food (UofM) – this is a cool psych trick that doesn’t work at all on kids tending towards ARFID by the way. You might end up making both disliked. But it could totally work on kids on the milder end of the picky eating spectrum. I haven’t seen this tip that often, but I am glad it was mentioned. I think you’d have to combine it in such a way that the liked and disliked foods aren’t easily separated. Like peas baked into a fry, or peas baked into a nugget or burger? You have to try to see if this works for you. Even if your child pulls out the peas and puts it aside, this is may still build tolerance – sensory and visual tolerance – toward said disliked food. My guest in the last episode, 85, – Laura Fuentes -talks about how she does this with one-pot meals that the whole family eats.
3. Verbal Praise for good choices – This is parenting 101, pretty standard stuff. I am not sure how I feel about this- because it can get overused, but praising your child sincerely, with true emotion, is always a good idea. In the end, we are trying to make food fun, and less stressful.
4. Limit exposure to unhealthy food – What is unhealthy food? Unless you have an answer to this question, this advice is pretty useless. But having said that, often picky eaters will feel hungry and will fill themselves up with the safest option. In my world, anything that is not real food – is unhealthy – if it has preservatives, colors, added sugar, artificial sweeteners or bad fats – this includes a bag of chips, cake, sweets, candy, etc. Access to these foods is severely limited or non-existent in my household when I want to encourage healthy choices.
5. Give them a variety of options – We are still firmly in the behavioral arena. But this does make sense to me. This does not mean cook a lot of food. This means among the foods on the table, they are free to choose what they like. If you have only cooked one dish, there might be fruits on the table as well. Your child gets to choose what they want to eat in what combination.
6. Don’t hide or disguise food – In my 3 step model to address picky eating, the first step is Trust – and this includes Open and Honest Communication. Hiding and disguising foods almost never works, and it is disrespectful. Full disclosure – I have done this, I have recommended that people try this. But if you are going to try this, please tell your child what you are trying. Their reactions to certain textures may be beyond their control, and often, if they can, children ARE willing to try. Yes, EVEN if your child is non-speaking, which is the term we use, NOT non-verbal. Because the chances are that your child has language and receptive capacity, probably 100% whether they speak or not. I would say that it is basic courtesy that we dispense with the tricks and just talk to them.
7. Get your child to help – This one is from Mayo Clinic, and again, it is a useful one. Children that are engaged in food preparation and cooking, and going to be interested in food. But this goes beyond that. Children that do food prep have already started with the cephalic phase of digestion, the combination of the textures and aromas have already triggered the body into expecting food. This might be the MOST important technique to slowly sensitize against trauma and to increase tolerance AND appetite
8. Stay calm, don’t fight, be Ok with any outcome – When we realize that behavior IS communication, not of angst towards you, not because your food isn’t good, but because they are simply unable to eat it for some reason, then we can simply accept the outcome of any situation. Letting go of expectation helps us not be disappointed and be OK with any outcome. This is important, simply for your peace of mind and the peace of the home. The less picky eating becomes a struggle, the more likely you are going to see results.
9. Understand the root of picky eating – How often have you heard this? If you heard this before, have you given it a thought? Often therapists / doctors might mention anxiety (which is a very valid reason), but what is the root cause of anxiety? Choking is mentioned, why is choking an issue? Is it poor oral motor skills, or inflammation in the food tract or difficulty swallowing that particular food? Genetics might be mentioned as a root cause – but I find that this is not particularly helpful. The root of picky eating can be trauma – physical, emotional or biochemical. It can be inflammation or infection. Biochemical causes of Picky eating- like inflammation and nutrient deficiency- are at the most often neglected. And are usually only addressed by seeing a Functional Medicine Doctor or Nutritionist
10. Be patient (the 5 to 10 times trial thing) – For sure don’t expect miraculous results and be patient, but I often find that when biochemical root causes are addressed, transformation is quite rapid. However, the parenting approaches need to be slow and consistent and require patience.
11. Don’t offer dessert as a reward – This is from Mayo Clinic, and is a no-brainer in my book. Dessert contributes to several root causes of Picky Eating, including pathogen overgrowth, inflammation and nutrient deficiency, let alone the psychology of offering dessert as a reward, and the addictive effects of sugar.
12. Be creative with the recipes – I don’t know about this one. It would be nice to shape apple into rabbits, but I can tell you that’s not happening in my home. And if I have to dance around food with carving knives just so my kid can eat a bite, this would be a bandaid solution, not something that is lasting.
13. Don’t be a short-order cook – You don’t say. In direct contrast to the previous instruction, I think. Your job as a parent is to nourish, not please. Enough said. Don’t be a short order cook.
14. Have family meal times – self explanatory – I think this works more on the modeling piece and taking away from the idea that food is scary. Not many of us still have family meal times, so it is a great thing to schedule and implement.
15. Don’t distract or offer distractions – While we are on the behavioral realm, let me point out the utter futility of feeding a child while the TV runs. Disconnecting the food from the mind further is so not the aim of feeding. A picky eater is a child who experiences a form of disconnection already. But when we think it is a good idea to feed the child when they are momentarily distracted, it breaks trust, it breaks connection, and can only make the next mealtime that much worse!
16. Prepare one-meal for everyone – If you can, this would be ideal. Laura Fuentes talks about this in detail in our last podcast, episode 85
17. Limit liquid calories – I often advise families to ditch the milk, juice or anything but water between foods if they can. Milk with food is a concept I really struggle with, simply because it is a very alien concept to most traditional eating. Ayurveda actually strongly recommends to NOT combine milk and savory foods. Milk is never drunk cold in traditional eastern food cultures. Today, milk is the most inflammatory food after white sugar, and if you can replace it with homemade almond milk or pure coconut milk or hemp milk, or any good nut milk (home made prep), I would.
Juice, unless freshly squeezed is usually just at best empty calories, and at worst junk.
18. Have fun with food – I think this is mostly misinterpreted to mean carving rabbits out of mozzarella cheese. Make food non-threatening. Don’t add to the trauma behind food by adding threats to finish your plate or else… Make it easy to deal with, and easy to eat, and easy to waste if needed.
And with that mildly controversial ending, we have summarized 18 most commonly prescribed behavior-based interventions for “picky” eating.
Just like many Syndromes and labels, Picky eating is also a spectrum. From kids who are mildly fussy to a pathological condition called ARFID – or Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder. How much to focus on Behavior vs. Biochemistry is a balance everyone has to make, but without Biochemistry, behavior can really not be addressed very well.
And without Trust, neither Behavior nor Biochemistry mean a thing.
And that is why, while I think you do need a team of professionals working to support a child’s selective eating, I think the primary steps should be:
TRUST, COMMUNICATION and COMMUNICATION ACCESS
Infection and Inflammation – analysis and support, especially Gut Inflammation / Chronic Infectious triggers such as Yeast / PANS and PANDAS based conditions
Nutrition Deficiencies – looking for these and supporting nutrition
You can find my quick guide to supporting picky eating from a Functional Nutrition Perspective here.
“There are billions of neurons in our brains, but what are neurons? Just cells. The brain has no knowledge until connections are made between neurons. All that we know, all that we are, comes from the way our neurons are connected.”
There is a reason that you are dissatisfied with school for your child. It turns out that school may have been designed to provide an education for kids – but for neurodiverse kids, it very rarely does the same.
In the video below, I discuss what school is for and what it is NOT for. School is for:
– Feeling and being part of the community – Social Interactions and other really important gains that I discuss in this video
But school is NOT for education. And this may come as a shock to you, but it no way invalidates the value of school.
I am still trying my very best to get Sid into school, in a respectful, minimally segregated atmosphere this year. It may not happen (because the first instinct of most school districts that serve kids with neurodiverse needs is segregation” . But I won’t stop trying.
This, however, is WHY EDUCATION NEEDS TO BE SEPARATED FROM SCHOOL!
“You are confined only by the walls you build yourself.” -Andrew Murphy
This is how you can support symptoms of Autism, Focus issues, Hyperactivity or Behavior.
If you are reading this, you are likely a parent or a practitioner working in deep muddy waters to heal and support your child’s autism related symptoms, cure her eczema, heal his digestive issues, address her aggression, or modulate his hyperactivity.
Regardless of your journey, perhaps you are frustrated with different approaches, diametrically opposite schools of thought, and simply of the relentless work it seems to take to achieve just normal health.
I have something to say to you, something that is a learning that I have assimilated over years.
Healing is multi-modal and takes approaching from many directions.
Healing is NOT linear. We don’t go step by step to a path to health.
We converge upon it from many directions, and find our equilibrium.
This process of Healing that leads to Optimal Performance is in my mental model, a pyramid (I am wondering if it should be a cone since I said circular, but we will address geometry later).
The 3 layers of this pyramid are:
Functional Health [Nutrition and optimal System Function]
STEP 1. FUNCTIONAL NUTRITION AND HEALTH
Functional Health means that you have organ systems functioning optimally and in cohesion. It means that your immune system is not attacking itself (most childhood epidemics including eczema , autism related neurological symptoms , allergies are either autoimmune in nature or include immune dysfunction).
Functional Health is dependent on a fully competent digestive system. This means that:
Your child can digest and fully breakdown everything they eat
They can absorb these nutrients
They can metabolize these nutrients for different processes including energy generation.
This means that you have corrected nutrient deficiencies. For example, a lack in the group of B-Vitamins can cause your neurotransmitters to be off-balance, liver detox pathways to be sluggish, fatigue, lack of focus, impaired fat and carbohydrate metabolism and your sleep to be disrupted!
It means a diverse but balanced microbiome, which is one of the most complex challenges in helping an Autistic child. 
It means mitochondria (energy producing organelles) that are not in emergency mode or fatigued. 
Movement based interventions such as Feldenkrais, Anat Baniel Method, Reflex Integration, Rhythmic Movement and Yoga all use small or large precise movements to effect changes in neural pathways.
There is anecdotal and published information that these small changes can result in children developing skills from depth perception to vision, from a more regulated behavior to a better coordination between brain and body. 
Movement therapies are unique in that they have a direct line to the brain in forming different ways of moving and thinking. Nutrition/biomedical interventions help heal the gut, reduce inflammation, balance hormones and neurotransmitters, thus reducing neuroinflammation and helping focus/anxiety/seizures/allergies etc.
What Movement does is provide rich information to the healing brain.
To heal without providing new information to affect change is often not enough.
3. RESPECT / EQUAL EDUCATION
All the nutrition and movement in the world is useless if the child isn’t treated with respect.
What is Respect?
Acknowledging that behavior is most often communication
Equal opportunities of education
Enabling the child to have a complete communication system
RESPECTING THE INTERESTS OF THE CHILD
Remembering that Not Speaking is NOT the same as Not Thinking!
ASSUMING COMPETENCE regardless of external manifestation.
This is often not an intuitive context, and for those who would like a little nudge, I would refer you to my TEDx talk. 
For the non-speaking Autistic child (or a child with other disabilities), some techniques that I have found to be both respectful and deeply impactful are RPM, S2C and some AAC. Remember that a child’s access to alternative communication often depends on 3 factors (at least):
Regulation of the Body
If your child is deficient in any of the above 3, do not let any practitioner tell you that your child is not ready for AAC. It may be that AAC is not ready for your child.
If your child has impaired motor skills, it is the role of the AAC device to be able to be adapted to your child, not the other way around.
That is the equilateral triangle for children. This is the triangular (3-faced) pyramid. The 3-step model for Optimal Health.
Do remember that Optimal does not mean Neurotypical.
Functional Health without Movement is a beautiful classroom without a teacher.
Movement without Assuming Competence and Respect is inhumane.
Respect without Nutritional intervention (Functional Health) is setting the child up for failure. An inflamed brain or body is often not in the optimal state to receive and implement.
We live in a world where an anxious mind is no longer an outlier. It is not that weird anymore to say “My child is anxious” or even “I suffer from anxiety”. It is expected or understood at least.
There are, of course needless to say, NUMEROUS benefits to acceptance and non-judgement, and it would really be my DREAM to see a society free from prejudice without narrow restrictions of behavioral parameters.
But sometimes, acceptance can result in a lack of inquiry. In fact, passive acceptance is the very antithesis of a scientific mind. The value of asking a question is beyond words! It is the very gateway to understanding your child’s body. This is what Functional Medicine does.
Why is my child anxious (or aggressive)?
If you asked this question, with wonder, without blame, then Welcome to the world of Functional Medicine.
While we aren’t doing the whole Scientific Inquiry process here, mostly because it has already been done for you, Let us look at the 5-basic checkpoints.
What does she eat? This can be your clue to understanding and examining the following:
Sensitivities (different from Allergies)
Is he deficient in Vitamins/Minerals/Omega-3s, also known as micronutrients?
Is he getting enough GOOD FAT in his diet?
Good Fat looks like Virgin Coconut Oil, Ghee, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Avocado Oil, Cold Pressed Nut/Seed Oils, etc.
Bad fat (to be entirely avoided) is any refined vegetable or nut/seed oil (Canola, Corn Oil, “Vegetable” Oil, etc.)
And while diet-based interventions can be complex, they should always start with the questions listed here. You do want to visit a functional nutrition practitioner, but these questions will give you a framework of where to start.
Superfood challenge for anxiety (Lions Mane)
Have you heard of medicinal mushrooms? There are now numerous studies that talk about the benefit of mushrooms, particularly my favorite, Lions Mane, with respect to Anxiety and Depression, for example, this one.
It is even known to help with Nerve Regeneration and with Amyloid Plaque. My son has Down Syndrome, and has high risk of developing Alzheimer’s with age. Lions Mane is my go to on a very regular basis.
What is Inflammation and why is it important for your child?
You have heard about it, everybody is talking of it, it is almost a catch-all, one of those words that enters the mind and dissolves into meaningless fluff. Years ago, I caught myself wondering if people that said “inflammation” actually were hiding behind this word to say that they didn’t really know.
Well, this blog is to tell you that Inflammation is now considered the root cause of ALL CHRONIC ILLNESS: by this, we mean – from Eczema to Crohn’s to Asthma to your child’s volatile behavior.
What does this word bring your your mind? If you said swelling or redness or pain, you would be absolutely right! Pain, swelling, redness and heat are the classical definition of inflammation (in Latin, they are called Dolor, Tumor, Rubor and Calor).
Now, Inflammation, for all its bad press is a completely natural and essential process. It is the result of your body trying to repair some real or perceived attack or damage. It is how your body fights off bacteria and viruses, which are real insults to your body.
But when the insult isn’t real, and when your immune system is confused, inflammation becomes chronic or unending, and that’s when you experience arthritis, or eczema, or autoimmune issues, or behavioral symptoms like aggression, or brain fog etc.
If you consider the number of children around us who have Type 1 diabetes, or Allergies or Eczema or Asthma, it becomes clear that an overwhelming majority of kids are chronically inflamed!
What low-effort/high-impact steps can you take to reduce inflammation in your child?
Turmeric: You know it, everyone knows it. Get into the habit of daily dosing. Try 1/2 tsp with black pepper and ginger in non-dairy milk like almond or macadamia or coconut. Add raw honey to taste. .
Fish Oil: Our next anti-inflammatory comes naturally in fish, of course, but supplements can give you a therepeutic dose when dealing with a disorder. Therepeutic doses are at least 1000 mg per day and often higher.
Probiotics: If you are still new to the world of ferments and probiotics, I would strongly recommend you check out my earlier blog first. Start what I call the Kimchi Project (get your child to enjoy Kimchi). Dose consistently, daily, and vary the foods that you ferment.
Avoid or minimize the top 3 inflammatory foods: Sugar, Wheat and Dairy.
Note:This is a maintenance regimen (but a powerful one). It is entirely possible that you need more intensive support, or one of these ingredients don’t work for you. In that case, be sure to work with your functional medicine practitioner.
If you suspect that Inflammation is at the root of your child’s discomfort, do drop a note to let us know what you have tried, and what has helped.
I have scoured the world of vegan “milks” to try and make a chai that I could tolerate. I didn’t even dare hope for a chai that I would LOVE! There are two “milks” that have brought me hope again: Macadamia nut milk and Almond Milk (but only from Thrive Market, and only the Thrive Market brand, likely because it doesn’t have fillers or gums or added vitamins).
½ tsp grated ginger
½ of a cardamom (crushed in a mortar and pestle or anywhere)
½ cup water
½ cup macadamia nut milk (Thrive Market Almond Milk works in this too)
Organic CTC Assam tea (I always use Organic CTC tea)
-Don’t use whole leaf tea, that is not for chai.
-Tea is one of the plants that is cultivated with tons of pesticides, so organic is a good idea.
Boil the water with the ginger and cardamom.
Add 1.5 tsp of the CTC Assam tea and lower to a simmer for 2-3 minutes.
*Real Chai drinkers don’t add cinnamon. Cloves: mayyyy be, not cinnamon. Don’t get me wrong, I love cinnamon, it is pretty close to a super spice! But just not in chai.*
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