Picky Eating

Kids are clever. Their ultimate goal when it comes to eating is to gain control of any given situation and get the upper hand. Tired, frustrated and busy parents will often slowly but surely give over control of food choices to their children, one demand at a time.

This is not to say that children should not have any say in what they eat, but if given complete control, kids will often end up in an endless cycle of chicken nuggets, french fries and sugary treats. Looking for some sure-fire ways to tip the scales of control back into the hands of the adults doing the feeding? Try this tried-and-true advice from one parent to another.

Create some structure.

No matter what age kids you’re trying to work with, the first step is to lay the groundwork. If mealtime structure is lacking, try to create some predictable routines and habits so that the other techniques will have a place to work. This can look different in every household. For a start, if you aren’t eating any of your meals together, this can be a great goal to begin with. Aim to eat together at least once a day. If your evenings are busy, breakfast can be a good place to start.

Second, ensure that there is some sort of predictable structure concerning meal timing. Implementing a spacing of at least two hours between any given eating occasion — whether a meal or a snack — is helpful in encouraging kids to eat when food is offered. Hungry kids eat better than kids who have been snacking all day.

Be the bearer of bad news.

I hate to break it to you, but the next step involves telling your kids what you’re up to and sticking to it. Don’t decide to present a surprise feast of Brussels sprouts with liver and onions for dinner without warning your kids what’s coming. Better yet, find ways to ease into the new family rhythm of breaking the pickiness cycle.

After getting more structured with snack and meal times, perhaps try introducing one new food a week into your family meals. The most important rules to explain concern unacceptable attitudes such as whining, complaining or begging at meals. Make it clear that these kinds of words and behaviors will no longer be tolerated. Explain that a simple “no thank you” will always suffice.

Also make it clear that everyone will eat the same meal, no exceptions. No short-order cooking or special foods because someone doesn’t like what is being served.

Play it cool.

When introducing a new food, it’s best to do it during a calm, predictable, family meal setting. Trying to get your 2-year-old to eat a new food when you’re visiting your mother-in-law (aka Grandma) is probably not the best time.

This is where your family meal structure really starts to become important. Offer one new food (either completely new to them or previously rejected) alongside familiar favorites. Act like it’s not a big deal. Encourage them to try it, but if they refuse, just remind them that no whining is allowed, and no alternatives will be offered. If an entire meal is refused all together, act like it’s not a big deal, but simply state that there will be no other food or drink (except water) allowed until the next eating occasion.

And stick to exactly what you say, every time. If a child does decide to try a new food, do not act surprised or overjoyed. Just act like it’s normal, perhaps comment on how that food is tasty, and move on with conversation.

Use discipline sparingly.

Don’t try strong-arming your kids into eating their veggies. If your child doesn’t clean their plate or refuses to eat all together, let hunger be the natural disciplinary consequence. Make sure no juice, ice cream or other treats are available as a back-up plan to the hunger. The child must wait for the next scheduled eating occasion until they eat again.

A few occasions of true hunger will teach a far more memorable lesson than threatening and cajoling ever could, and it will create a much calmer and less stressful mealtime environment.

Choose your battles.

Is it a junk food free-for-all every time your kids visit Grandma? Sometimes, there are certain battles not worth fighting. If they visit Grandma every single day, however, perhaps a conversation with her about the new family habits that you’re trying to implement may be in order.

Not every day will be perfect, and not every situation is within your realm of control, so do your best and move on. Furthermore, don’t make every meal at home a battle either. Don’t serve something new three meals a day if you and your kids don’t want to be overwhelmed and defeated. Start small.

Repeat. Then repeat again.

Have you offered broccoli with dinner 10 times and it has been turned down all 10 times? Keep offering. And eat the broccoli in front of your kids. Make sure it’s tasty the way it’s prepared, and then comment on how it’s yummy, but leave it at that. Eat the food like it’s no big deal, and don’t allow any negative talk about any particular food at the table — kids and adults alike.

Many parents will offer a food once or twice, and then if it’s rejected, assume their child will never eat that food in the future. You’d be surprise how often they change their mind about what they will eat. Offer food again and again, and eventually, the food will likely be accepted. Even if a child doesn’t eat broccoli until he’s 25, the groundwork was laid. Don’t be discouraged. Learning to eat well is a lifelong process, and many experts agree that it may take as many as 15 or more exposures to a new food until it’s accepted.

So, that’s the best advice I have. And I dare you to try it, because it works. It really works. So parents, go forth like the superheroes you are, and conquer dinnertime. One meal at a time.

Please note: Children with sensory issues and special needs may require special techniques to help them with food selectivity, though many of the above methods may be effective as well, with some modifications and more persistence.

For children with special needs, I recommend caregivers work with physicians, dietitians and therapists to ensure that the child is growing and developing their best.

To schedule a consultation with Angela, visit the MediSlim clinic at 3806 S. Medford Drive in Lufkin or call (936) 632-1996 for more information.