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!
Do check out my picky eating toolkit – this is a functional nutrition perspective.
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.