In an era with Whole Foods, Paleo diets, and organic produce at our fingertips, how do we improve a child that is a picky eater? Modern day life can be hectic and as the result feeding may reflect fast, convenient options that taste good but are not always the most nutrient-dense. So, how does one correct picky eating to support a more balanced diet?
5 Tips to Address a Picky Eater
- Re-create expectations around feeding. Eating does not just have to be about pleasure, it can be about sustenance, nutrition, and a time for social interaction/community. To frame feeding in terms of just for pleasure, we overemphasize the role of taste in our feeding practices; if it doesn’t taste good or initiate our pleasure receptors, we shouldn’t eat it. Really, we eat for a variety of reasons and taste can be one of them. If we re-create our expectations to encompass eating for nutrition, sustenance, as well as taste it can become easier for your child to engage with non-preferred, more healthful foods.
- Motivate compliant behaviors through incentives. Feeding is a behavior just like any other so if you want to target increased compliance with eating certain foods, provide incentives to encourage the desired behavior. For example, if your child refuses to eat vegetables with dinner, create a log that tracks compliance with trying at least 3 bites of the non-preferred food. Upon completion of the bites, the child can get a sticker, equating with a long-term prize at the end of the week for compliant behaviors or result in shorter-term gratification which can look like being served dessert. Identify what may motivate your child the most to get through challenging tasks and work with this to create investment towards a new mode of eating. The 3-bite rule can help the child also determine if this is truly a food they like or not as they engage with it more.
- Debunk negative thinking. Chances are your child’s refusal of food is due to negative thoughts around how they perceive the food to taste or impact them. For example, if a child fears that a food will make them gag, taste disgusting, or make them sick, it would make sense that they would want nothing to do with these foods. The fact of the matter is, there may be limited to no evidence supporting these interpretations so it is important to challenge or debunk this negative thinking. If the child asserts that they don’t like broccoli, inquire about what they believe will happen to them if they eat it. Will they gag? Will they dislike the taste? Will it make them sick? Likely, they will report they just won’t like the taste. If that is the reality, this is a small problem that they can overcome with practice, perseverance, and supplemental positive thinking. Thinking that broccoli is just “ok” but nothing bad will come as the result can facilitate easier engagement and consumption with the non-preferred food item.
- Pair foods together. No one says that a meal will only consist of just preferred or just non-preferred foods so it is important to teach balance This can look like pairing favored foods with non-favored foods to emphasize this point; incorporating chicken nuggets with vegetables or fruit instead of French fries or dipping peanut butter and apples together can make unpleasant foods more pleasurable.
- Model. Model. If you want your children to get healthy foods and interact with a balanced plate so do you! Align with your child and demonstrate for them that these foods are good and good for you.
NSPT offers Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) and Nutrition services in Bucktown, Evanston, Highland Park, Lincolnwood, Glenview and Des Plaines. If you have questions or concerns about your child, we would love to help! Give us a call at (877) 486-4140 and speak to one of our Family Child Advocates today!