This is a guest post from Jill Castle, a registered dietitian/nutritionist specializing in pediatric nutrition. She is the author of Try New Food, The Smart Mom’s Guide to Starting Solids, Eat Like a Champion, and co-author of Fearless Feeding. She’s the expert and voice behind the popular blog and podcast, The Nourished Child. Learn more about Jill and her books, programs, and services here.
Lisa asked me to come back to be a summer guest blogger again, and I’m thrilled to be here! If you didn’t get a chance to read my last posts about sports drinks for kids and why kids with ADHD aren’t hungry, take a gander now. For today, I’m tackling picky eaters—and not just the toddler! I’ll be chatting about older, extremely picky kids.
Picky eating drives parents nuts, but what makes them even more frustrated is the child who refuses to try new foods. The child who is disinterested, too busy, set in his ways, or quite possibly, maybe disgusted and anxious when he’s around food.
Fancy cut-out sandwiches and veggie-based smoothies aside, many parents I know want to transform their picky eater into a healthy eater. They’re not interested in waiting out this maddening phase of selective eating, nor are they willing to accept picky eating as the new norm.
They want to do something.
And they want to do it now.
However, this is where some parents get themselves into trouble. They try to bribe or force bites of new or disliked food. They scold their child for not trying a taste. They jump through hoops, making different meals to get their child to eat.
But, guess what? These tactics mostly don’t help. In some cases, they make things worse.
What parents need to know about picky eating
Perhaps you’ve got a toddler who is moving through the usual childhood developmental phase or an older child who’s been a picky eater for a while. Regardless of your situation, there are positive ways to interact with, motivate, and support your picky eater.
In my workbook, Try New Food: How to Help Picky Eaters Taste, Eat, & Like New Foods, I cover the basics of helping any picky child learn about, experience, and taste new foods.
No matter what type of picky eater you have, you need to be clear on:
- Why picky eating is happening.
- What to feed your child (even if he is limited in food choices).
- How to feed him with positive parenting techniques.
- Whether your expectations and motivations are in the right place.
- Strategic ways to get kids involved with food.
- Where you’re headed (the end goals).
While most parents recognize that ‘this too shall pass,’ there is a subset of parents who cannot see an end in sight. These are the parents of extremely picky eaters. They need new insight and extra support. When I wrote Try New Food, I had parents of all picky eaters in mind.
What extreme picky eaters (& their parents) need
When kids are incredibly picky with food, you need a different approach. As a parent, you need a keen understanding of why picky eating has a stronghold.
You need a strategic approach that helps your child make progress, even if it’s at a snail’s pace.
Your child needs a pleasant, peaceful way to experience new foods. He needs a low pressure, low expectation environment. Also, he needs lots and lots of understanding, support, and patience.
In my years of working with families as a pediatric nutritionist, I’ve culled the current research and developed practical techniques that reflect principles of cognitive behavioral therapy, food chaining, antecedent manipulation, pediatric nutrition, effective feeding practices, and childhood developmental norms.
The Nourished Child® path to trying new foods
This approach to helping picky eaters try new foods represents my philosophy of using a “whole child” approach to nutrition for all kids. Here’s a small glimpse of my system for extremely picky eaters, adapted from Try New Food:
- Choose try-it bites for the week
Choose three new foods to try for the week. This approach works best when your child is part of the process. Ideally, these foods will be ones your child is interested in trying.
Alternatively, the food can be an extension of food your child already likes and eats. For example, if he likes French fries, you could try sweet potatoes fries. Eventually, the new foods will be your child’s idea, but you may need to provide suggestions or brainstorm with him in the beginning.
Your child will taste or have an experience with each of these three foods daily during the week.
- Small bites and few foods
The goal here is to underwhelm your child with new food. I want your child to look at the try-it bites of food and feel confident and unintimidated. As such, you’ll use tiny bites of food—use the size of your thumbnail or pinky nail to estimate the size of a try-it bite.
Don’t offer more than the three different foods you’ve chosen for the week at a tasting session. For really sensitive kids, you may be starting with just one try-it bite food. Remember, the goal is to underwhelm your child, not overwhelm him.
- Private or supported tastings
Your child may be sensitive to the environment in which he is trying new foods. Find a setting that is stress-free and with minimal distractions. For example, a quiet corner of the kitchen, dining room, or a parent’s home office might work best. Try-it bites at mealtime are discouraged.
Some children may want to try new food alone, while others will want the support of a parent, sibling, or caretaker. Decide who will participate in try-it bites with input from your child. Any supportive person must be neutral and avoid using pressure to eat, bribes of dessert, or threats of punishment.
- Tasting versus testing
Some kids will need to start by testing their food, such as touching it, smelling it, or interacting with it before they bring it to their mouths. For example, peeling a clementine, touching mashed potatoes, or smelling a pineapple.
If your child is ready to taste the food, let me remind you: tasting is not eating. Tasting is everything but eating: kissing the food, putting it in the mouth and taking it out, chewing food and spitting it out. Tasting is progress!
- Tracking progress
If he is able, have your child document his food experiences. If he can’t, do it for him.
Did he enjoy or like the experience or taste of the food? Did he dislike it? Is he ambivalent, or not sure yet? Journal each tasting experience. It will help you and your child understand his picky eating better and inform future try-it bite challenges.
Helping picky eaters become healthy eaters
There’s more to the story of helping children try new foods, including positive feeding techniques, family meals, and considerations for nutrition. Try New Food enables you to work through the individual characteristics of your picky eater in positive ways while helping your child learn to like new foods, grow well, and become the healthy eater you want him to be.
Try New Food also provides you with additional resources, charts, and forms, and doubles as a journaling exercise as you make your way through the workbook.
Do you have a picky eater? What’s your biggest challenge right now? Please share with me in the comments!