Here are some strategies to help your picky eater
Meal times becoming a battle ground? Nutritional therapist Judith Yeabsley from The Confident Eater is here to help take you from chicken nuggets to chicken curry.
Tell us a little about what you do:
My goal is to ensure that all children can approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear. Knowing how many families are struggling around food, I appreciate that this is a huge task. However, I believe that as a society, we’ve minimised the scope and the severity of the picky eating problem. I work with individual families tailoring personalised plans, run workshops and group programmes and have authored two books: Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner.
How did you get into this line of work?
I come from a background in nutrition but realised what I had to offer was not what families needed. Every second parent told me “I know what to feed them, I just don’t know how to get them to eat it”. I was shocked at the lack of support for families who did have children with eating challenges, and it seemed obvious that this is where I could best use my skills.
Why are you so passionate about it?
Anyone who has a fussy eater doesn’t need me to tell them how frustrating, guilt-inducing and helpless picky eating can make one feel. Especially for mothers, it can seem like failing to execute a core responsibility. I also speak to families week-in, week-out, where picky eating is affecting family life on multiple levels.
Social occasions, knock-on effects for siblings, household dynamics and stress-levels; not being able to eat confidently impacts a family, five times a day, seven days a week. This is not okay. But as a society we do not take picky eating seriously. The concerns of parents are often discounted, and they are made to feel that they are failing but paradoxically also panicking unnecessarily.
What ages do issues around eating often arise?
A hangover from evolution means that toddlers naturally become more suspicious about food from around 18 months old. This may be barely noticeable, a frustrating period of fussiness, or snowball into a protracted eating challenge.
Are some children born to be picky eaters no matter what caregivers do?
YES!! Studies conducted on babies who go on to become super selective eaters show that they have different sucking patterns at two and four weeks, comparative to other children. Some children find food challenging regardless of parenting. I frequently work with families with two children who eat competently and one who really struggles. We all have different skills and challenges and for some children food is difficult. Add to that additional challenges like ASD, sensory sensitivities or allergies for example, and those eating issues are often magnified.
Parents are often told to just relax – that their child will grow out of picky eating. What’s your response to that?
This a question with multiple layers so I’m going to unpack it in my answers!
Being relaxed around food is great advice. The more relaxed we are, the more likely we are to eat. Any sort of pressuring or battling over food can have the opposite effect to the one we’re looking for.
In terms of children growing out of picky eating, if you do have a child that is really challenged around food, why would they just magically snap out of it in the short to medium term? If food is difficult for them, why wouldn’t they just say no to anything challenging? It’s perfectly logical. Why eat broccoli when crackers have proven to be nice and safe? “No” becomes the default position and almost automatic as it ensures safety.
The longer a child eats in a certain way, the more that becomes a pattern and as we can all attest, habits around food are incredibly powerful. More so, studies have shown that avoiding certain tastes or textures can make us more sensitive to them over time. This compounds the challenge for parents and means children can become more, not less resistant to new foods. In fact, many extremely selective eaters drop rather than add foods over time. They become bored or have a bad experience with one of their limited choices and stop eating it.
Being hungry enough coming into meals is important. Constant snacking is the enemy of eating well. But, giving a choice of 'eat this or go hungry' feeds into one of the myths around picky eaters. Firstly, for those with a real discomfort around food, being hungry is infinitely preferable to eating something that to them is akin to eating spiders for us. Sadly, going hungry is a far more palatable option. Secondly, tactics that force children to do something, seem counterintuitive. Eating is about joy and pleasure. Putting a child in the position where they are choosing extreme discomfort around food versus hunger doesn’t create a love for food and therefore a long-term positive relationship with eating.
This does not mean, of course, that we only feed them their favourite foods. In fact, the opposite. Exposing children to a variety of foods and building a basic comfort level with them, regardless as to what gets eaten, is critical.
Why do children accept something one day and not the next?
The simple answer is comfort. If food is a bit of a challenge, then conditions are more likely to have to be perfect for eating to be okay. One day the nugget looks great, the next it seems a bit too brown, and suddenly the confidence that it will be okay is gone. If your child is tired, over stimulated, cranky or feeling slightly under par for any reason, then the default position is executed. If food is difficult then it’s easier to say no, so they do. Power may also become a part of this but that’s a whole new conversation!
What are the common questions you get from parents of picky eaters?
The two I hear the most are “How do I get my child to try new food?” and “How do I get my child to eat more (or any!) fruit and vegetables?”
These are in some ways the same question. Learning to eat a new food is the same whether it’s an apple or a piece of cake. Foods like toast and crackers are more commonly accepted because they are predictable and tick boxes in terms of texture and taste. A piece of broccoli, on the other hand, can be more of a challenge.
Despite not having the same street cred as a cracker, fruit and vegetables can absolutely become part of a child’s diet. There is good and bad news on this front. Eating is physiologically very complex. It’s also socially, emotionally and culturally driven. When something goes wrong, fixing it requires addressing challenges on multiple levels. There is no magic formula to instantly change a picky eater into a competent one. That’s the bad news.
The good news, however, is that there are a series of steps that truly will make a difference with time, energy and focus. Whether you have a child who is two or twelve, who survives on peanut butter on crackers for breakfast, lunch and dinner or who prefers to avoid anything green; there is proven methodology for making a difference.
What can we do to help our picky eater?
There is no manual for parents, and food and feeding is one of the areas where there is paradoxically both way too little and way too much information available. We are bombarded with messages about what we ‘should’ feed our children but there is little available help when this ‘loving, organic process’ stops working (or never gets going in the first place). A big part of the issue is that we are repeatedly told to do the impossible.
Most of us expect to serve a food and have our child eat it. If that happens, it’s a win. If not, it’s a fail. Every time the latter happens, we feel a little more demoralised and become convinced that we are not able to resolve this problem for our child. But parents are usually the ones best placed to help a child. No one is more invested, spends more time or knows a child better than a parent.
What will make the difference is working on things that build comfort around food, rather than expecting a child to go from serving to eating without any work in between. If we have a child who is uncomfortable about a tomato even sitting on their plate, the chances of them eating it are pretty slim. It’s like taking a child who is frightened of water to the pool and throwing them into the deep end. Logically, we know this is fear-inducing and unlikely to produce a positive result, and yet we are taught to do this with food all the time.
“Relax and keep serving and your child will eat it.” Yes, serving consistently is critical, as is being relaxed, but there is so much more to the equation when a child is not comfortable around food. That makes sense when we think about it in terms of the swimming pool and how long it takes before a child happily bobs in the deep end on their own.
Do we continue to throw our child in the deep end with food, or do we gently take them through all the steps that build that comfort and joy?
What would you consider fairly 'normal' or expected fussy behaviour around food and in what type of situation should parents enlist some help from a professional?
Firstly, I’m a firm believer that parents know when something is going really wrong. If you are convinced that your child’s eating is really challenged, trust your gut and check in with a professional.
Some red flags to take into account are: losing or not gaining weight, a very narrow range of accepted foods, dropping previously liked foods without adding new ones, an extreme reaction to new foods, avoiding whole food groups and rigidity around the foods that are eaten.
Secondly, it is perfectly normal for young children, especially in the 18 month to three years group to love bananas and want nothing else one day, and then ‘hate’ them the next. Eating, like everything else for littlies, can be a bit of a rollercoaster. This is where two particular strategies are super helpful:
- Relax and roll with it. Don’t worry about what happens at any one meal, look at what happens across a week. It’s also frustrating but normal for a child to start disliking certain foods, and veggies are often top of the hit list. Fortunately, fruit has similar nutrients so if you do have a fruit eater, you can relax about the greens and action strategy number two.
- A child's 'no' doesn’t mean never, it means not now. Continue serving foods that are a 'no' and think about feeding like reading. How much love do we bring to the reading experience and more importantly, how long does it take for our child to become proficient enough to read independently? Supporting someone to eat widely and well is a long-term, ongoing project, just like reading. Going from serving to eating takes time and that’s okay – we are going to be lovingly preparing and sharing food with our child for years to come.
Judith lives in Wellington with her husband and two boys, is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist working with groups and individuals, as well as authoring two books. Check out her work at theconfidenteater.com.
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 53 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW