Why Does Picky Eating Happen?
Outside of a medical or developmental complication, picky eating can come from a mix of genetics, temperament, environment, biology, sensory issues, perceived pressure, and parental influence. And it’s very common!
One big truth to keep in mind is young kids don’t have much control over their day. Among the few things they do get to control is what they eat and how much they eat. And, understandably, the foods many kids choose to eat are generally very predictable. In other words, they’re the same every time. Children who are more reserved about new experiences may feel like other foods that are unpredictable are too big a risk.
Pick Your Battles At Family Mealtimes
For children who are picky eaters, family mealtimes can become a battle. I always hear parents say this is exactly what they don’t want. But let’s break that down: when parents say they don’t want a battle or a power struggle, what that usually implies is they just want their child’s compliance.
What parents tend to forget is that kids are their whole, own individual people. They have their own opinions, likes, dislikes, preferences, and ideas. So, think of it less like getting them to do what you want and more in terms of collaboration and family fun.
Rewrite The Experience
Try to reframe your own conceptualization of the entire mealtime experience and start expecting the best-case scenario possible for your child during that meal. This will change over time and may even be different on any given day. Keep in mind, the same is true for adults too. Our best in anything looks different each day and that’s okay. Find the victory in each snack and mealtime.
Give Kids Something To Control
Since a large component of picky eating comes from needing to experience a sense of control, helps kids feel like they are in control and can make effective decisions across different aspects of life. The premise is twofold: first, giving kids more control in other areas of life may help them let go of their need to control food. Second, building them up by taking their lead whenever possible will act as a buffer for the times that you do need to take charge.
Encourage kids to take initiative by offering them decisions to make and showing that you value their opinion through your actions. Let them see their decisions come to life. Offer choices within 2-3 pre-approved items and let them make the final decision. Don’t forget to give kids tons of compliments and praise for the areas in which they’ve made their own decision!
Take The Pressure Off
I’ll put it simply: the more parents push, the more kids resist. Understandably, it can be difficult for parents to refrain from vocalizing their own desire, excitement, or frustration around kids trying new foods or eating foods that are nutritionally rich. However, think about it this way.
Continuous encouragement (in other words, pushing) may make it feel to kids as though the thing parents are pushing is undesirable.
It can feel very stressful to kids and their brains tend to process it something like this: “Hmm…this feels suspicious. Why would mom & dad need to push it if it was really that great!? If they’re pushing it, that must mean I won’t like it, like medicine. This is making me nervous. I’m definitely not going to have any now.”
Shift Your Own Approach
From now on, the words “try it” is no longer in your vocabulary! Your only job is to put the food in front of your child. “Here you go! Your plate has a, b, c…” and your child will decide what they try and how much they eat. Pressuring kids to eat tells them they don’t know what their body needs and doesn’t give them an opportunity to learn their own hunger and fullness cues.
As a result, kids often learn to listen to parents’ external cues (e.g., “finish your whole plate;” “just take one bite;” “just a few more bites please”) instead of their own internal cues, which makes regulating their eating more difficult as they get older. Trust kids to listen to their body to know when they’re hungry and full.
Tips For Mealtimes
Understand that diversifying children’s consumption and increasing their openness to new foods may be a slow process but take every victory as a success. Make mealtime much simpler for everyone by creating a more fun atmosphere around food with no pressure.
- Try to catch kids hungry. Consider their schedule and their hunger cues and try to catch them at the right time. When you know your child is hungry, this is a good time to place a snack tray in front of them, show/tell about the food that’s on there, and leave them to it. As you build the snack trays, add something new each time. Don’t hide it, sneak it in, or be nervous or apologetic about it. Be a matter of fact.
“Here you go! Your tray has [2-3 foods they already like] and [1 new food]. Enjoy!”
- Don’t load up the tray with too much of anything. Smaller amounts feel more manageable – it can feel overwhelming to young kids to see too much quantity or too many options.
- Don’t pressure kids to try or eat anything. At first, even talking about, being curious, or exploring new food is the win.
- Join kids at snacks and meals and be excited about the foods without overselling them or pushing them. Don’t talk about how much your child eats/doesn’t eat or ask them to try anything or eat more.
- Do make it a fun conversation and explore the food together. When it comes to food on the snack tray, on kids’ plates, on the table, or ingredients that are out for meal prep – talk about the colors, and textures, and encourage kids to explore.
“I wonder what this tomato feels like! What do you think? Will it be hard or squishy? Rough or smooth? I wonder what that red tomato tastes like! Do you think it’ll be sweet or sour? Are tomatoes…crunchy!?! Will the tomato taste different with a little salt? I wonder if it’s even tastier with a little salt. I’m gonna find out!”
Make it fun and silly – the more fun it is to be around food and the less it feels like you’re waiting for them to eat, the more likely it is that kids will forget about their nervousness and be open to trying something new.
- When your child is hesitant about trying something, your goal is to validate how they feel, not to force them to try it. The success here is making kids feel heard and understood.
“This is what we’re having to eat. I know you’re not so sure about it right now. It can feel scary to try something new. You’re not sure how it will taste and feel in your mouth or if you’ll like it. I know you’re safe though and it’s okay if you don’t like it.”
Then, eat and enjoy the same foods you’re offering.
“You don’t have to eat it but I think it looks good so I’ll try it. Oh wow, that is really good!” Show kids you enjoy the food and you’re unphased by any negative reactions from them.
- Give kids helpful jobs for anything to do with meal prep (e.g., mixing, adding ingredients, etc.), setting the table, bringing foods to the table, helping everyone make their plates, etc. Don’t worry about any messes or presentations.
The point is to get their involvement with the food and give them yet another area where they feel effective and independent, helping them be more likely to view food as fun and safe and eventually feel more open to trying new foods.
- Check in with kids and ask if they feel full after a meal or are still hungry. Ask, “what is your belly is telling you?” and help them learn their cues. Show kids you trust them to know what their body is telling them: “I’m really proud of you for listening to your body!”
Children learn the most through modeling. No matter how many times you tell them, they are more likely to do what you do and not do what you don’t do. For example, telling them to be kind to others gets parents nowhere if parents themselves don’t treat others with kindness.
Telling kids to regulate their emotions gets parents nowhere if parents themselves can’t regulate their own emotions. And expecting kids to eat the entire spectrum of foods gets parents nowhere if parents themselves show pickiness or uncertainty about foods in front of kids.
Be excited, interested, and open about all foods. It’s okay to have preferences and not like something, but kids can make up their own minds about their likes and dislikes after trying new foods themselves. When you’re with kids who need a little help opening up, lead by example.
Dr. Ellen Kolomeyer is a clinical psychologist based in Plantation, FL, and provides traditional one-on-one therapy, personalized programs, and strategy sessions, aligned with enhancing child-to-parent relationships and child behavior support.