There is a vast difference between a child who eats selectively and a screaming demon who refuses to touch anything that isn’t shaped like a nugget. Unless you are a family of pirates, you probably prefer your children to be scurvy-free. So when your child has texture sensitivities (or an obsessive preference for high-carb, low-nutrient cuisine), parental stress levels can rise faster than store-bought muffin mix.
If your internet search history includes entries along the lines of, “Can toddlers survive on fish fingers and strawberries?” then this article is for you.
When my second child was a toddler, I discovered the terrifying true meaning of so-called ‘”picky eating.” My child’s intense aversions (to almost every food in existence) made me re-evaluate my entire approach to parenting. If necessity is the mother of invention, then desperation is the father of creative problem-solving.
Sadly, I am not rich enough to eat out every night. Nor am I crazy enough to create an exciting fictional backstory for every meal I prepare. But I have a few tips for fellow parents of potential pirates.
- Don’t buy into the power struggle paradigm. Your child is not trying to manipulate you. Your child is trying to communicate. There is a difference.
- If your child has a preference for certain tastes, try to respect that. It might mean your meal-planning looks less-than-traditional, but if you’re going to end up throwing broccoli in the bin anyway, you might as well just cook corn in the first place.
- Keep your own stress away from the table. You might be worried about potential malnourishment, but your toddler doesn’t care about omega 3 fatty acids. The less your child associates stress with food, the better. Scary in the short term, but priceless in the long run. Try to relax.
- Don’t punish your child for refusing to eat a particular food. The only things punishment will reinforce are fear, stress, and resistance. If your child associates those emotions with eating, their food-related issues will worsen.
- Let your child leave the table when they’ve had enough, not when their plate is empty. Avoid dinnertime power play. If your child is hungry later, let them snack on something before bed.
- Have a selection of food your child is allowed to eat anytime, without having to ask. My kids know they are allowed to help themselves to fruit, yoghurt, toast, or cereal whenever they like. This enables them to respond to their own hunger-cues. It also reinforces autonomy, and allows them to graze throughout the day on their own terms.
- Buy vitamin supplements if you need to. If you are worried your child is not getting enough nutrition through their food, there are a number of delicious children’s supplements available. This does not replace a healthy diet, but it might help calm your parental panic during a particularly picky period.
- Analyze the options you are offering. If the majority of the food you buy is moderately healthy, it enables your child to make healthy eating choices for themselves.
- Cook with your child. If your child feels involved in the cooking process, and you have a fun time together preparing the food, the emotional associations with that food will be positive.
- Grow food and/or herbs with your child. Even if you don’t have a garden, a pot of parsley will do. Let them be responsible for cutting herbs, picking tomatoes, or adding home-grown baby carrots to the pot. They will feel proud, and involved in the process. Pride and inclusion are great when it comes to providing your child with positive food-related experiences.
- Let them dish up their own plates. Instead of dishing up for everyone at the bench, try putting all the food in the middle of the table and letting your children control what they put on their plates. Don’t criticize their choices. The aim is to take away the perceived stress of being confronted with a plate full pressure. Giving your kids additional control can help remove emotional residue from past power-struggles.
- Practice compassion. Try to imagine how your child is feeling. Despite how it may seem at times, your child is not trying to turn your hair grey. Imagine yourself entering a restaurant, craving spaghetti Bolognese. You ask for spaghetti Bolognese. The waiter hands you a bowl of Greek salad. How do you feel? Does the salad look appetizing? Do you complain? Do you feel resentful? I would, and not because I was trying to ruin the waiter’s day. Mood clearly plays a role in our own food choices. Your children may be shorter than you, but they are not lesser humans. They need choice and freedom, too.
- Understand that this phase is not going to last forever. If we (as responsible, non-trauma-inflicting parents) can be mindful of our own behaviors and keep our reactions positive, we may be able to prevent a stage of picky eating from becoming a life-long nutritional struggle.
- Remember that the aim of parenting is not to maximize your own convenience. The point of parenting is to raise children who grow up to become happy, healthy, independent, emotionally-aware adults. You are not a “short order cook” or a “slave to whim” if you take the extra time required to provide your children with healthy food choices (emphasis on the word “choices”). When you facilitate a positive-eating environment and provide the nutritious options your children ask for, you are being a caring parent.
If your child’s picky eating is severe, or doesn’t appear to be impacted by any of the above suggestions, there might be more going on than a reaction to stress, negative associations, or lack of choice.
Children with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) often have extreme food sensitivities. Certain smells, textures, tastes, and temperatures can literally overwhelm these kids. If your child’s food-refusal is extreme, it might be worth observing the specific level of sensory input required in order to create your child’s ideal eating conditions.
Picky eating, or a lack of appetite, could also be a symptom of depression, or a medical issue. If this is the case, you will need to address your child’s mental and/or physical health in addition to removing negativity from their eating environment.
There is no miracle cure for picky eating, but creativity, positivity, and autonomy can combine to counteract some of the stress you and your child may be experiencing. Encouraging your child to form positive associations with food will be far more beneficial than forcing your child to finish that last piece of broccoli.
Forget your culturally-engrained default settings. Forget traditional discipline. Forget your neighbor’s comments about short order cooking. Remember your child is a human being with genuine needs, preferences, and moods. Don’t fight these needs, respect them, and watch your family mealtime dynamics change for the better.