How to deal with a picky eater

Annie The Nanny

Annie The Nanny

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Annie the Nanny is a professional parenting educator. She writes a weekly advice column for parents who need help with their children's behaviour. Her advice has also been featured on CTV, CBC and in all kinds of print media. For more information about Annie, please go to her 'about' page.

My child is a picky eater. She’s one year old and used to eat anything, but now she refuses to eat meat and vegetables (unless they are green). She could live on pasta and fruit. What should I do? Thanks Rowena

Hi Rowena, I understand how frustrating this is for you, and you’re part of a big club of parents who have to confront the very common question of how to deal with a picky eater. It’s even more difficult to deal with a child who cannot yet communicate with you. So I completely understand how easy it is for you to just want to give her whatever she’ll eat. Having said that, let me take you on a story about how picky eaters develop.

Help My Child Is A Picky Eater

So, how to deal with a picky eater? Let me start by saying that it’s hard to know what to do with a child who refuses to eat certain foods and does that to the point of refusing entire food groups. Dealing with a picky eater is hard. As a result, I often bring this up with my clients during a behaviour intervention because it’s very helpful in learning how these issues develop and how you can deal with a picky eater. The first thing that’s important to understand is that this isn’t a behaviour that comes out of nowhere. In order to illustrate this, let’s see how picky eaters develop. Let’s pretend there’s a mom with a little girl who has been eating pretty well since she introduced solid foods.

How to deal with a picky eater: How picky eating develops.

Then one day, her little girl decides to snap her mouth firmly shut and there just isn’t any way that mom can get that spoon any where near her.  Now if mom just shrugs her shoulders, stays calm and assumes her child is full, all is well and good.  Perhaps she just gently takes a wet cloth to that firmly closed mouth and lets her little one get down, unfazed by the whole refusal thing.

But let’s pretend that instead of reacting calmly, this mom harbours worries about her child’s small size.  “Oh, my baby girl’s only in the 5th Percentile for weight…yikes!’  Mum approaches the meal with trepidation.  She’s worried and she shows it.

 Anxiety over eating fills the room.

When the child’s mouth closes firmly, the child can see the tension in her mom’s face and her posture. Mom doesn’t give up but tries to play a game instead, moving the spoon all around in a pleasant, high-pitched voice. When that doesn’t work or ceases to work after a while, she starts to plead, and when her husband or other support person comes in the room, they talk about the “eating problem” in hushed voices with anxious tones. The question of how to deal with their picky eater consumes them.

Picky eating anxiety builds on itself.

Each meal becomes progressively worse. You see, the child can feel the anxiety, and the adults, for their part, start to act as if they know there will be a problem with the meal. You can cut the tension with a knife. Nobody talks as the spoon approaches their little one’s mouth. Everybody waits expectantly. The child realizes they are the centre of attention and can feel the anxiety around the table. This is not a comfortable feeling. Suddenly the little girl feels weird, unprotected, and out of control because her rock is faltering and her adult family members are looking concerned. Deep down, the child has a desperate need for assurance. The little girl needs to know that her parents know how to handle her, and now that rock that she has relied on for so long has suddenly disintegrated.

There is enormous pressure around eating.

Every meal it gets worse and soon more and more foods are being pushed away.  Now our little picky eater will only eat yogurt or cereal.  Mum gets upset and calls friends to talk about the problem or chats at playtime with the other moms over what to do.  Each couple of days she tries something new, hopeful as she approaches the meal that this will finally cure the picky eating.  She takes the child to a doctor and maybe a specialist, all of whom poke and prod her child and focus on the ‘problem.’  Not much changes.

How to deal with a picky eater: Picky eating is not about eating at all.

Ok, that was a fictional story, but it’s something I see all the time. It’s very important, if you want to learn how to deal with a picky eater and stop this behaviour, that you begin to see extreme picky eating as having little to do with actual eating. So, what is it related to? Well, it has to do with leadership. When you feel anxious and worried, you stop being a leader and start inadvertently looking to your child for resolution. That, in turn, makes your child feel very uncomfortable because no child is equipped to lead a family.

 Picky eating tips won’t solve the problem.

Can picky eating be caused by something else? Sure. Some children are influenced by a variety of factors, including genetics, or they may have had a negative experience at their grandparents’ house that their parents were unaware of. Some children may be more sensitive to the texture, taste, or smell of certain foods. But for the most part, picky eating is behavioural and if it’s accompanied by other defiant and controlling behaviours then that diagnosis is a certainty.

I understand the allure of thinking that if you have a child with a picky eating issue, that issue will just go away. I feel for your struggles because it’s very confusing for parents out there. Parents are told how to deal with a picky eater and that’s with a series of tips. I’m sorry to be the one to say this, but that’s not true. All these tips will do is confuse parents and lull them into a false sense of security, making them think they can change their child’s behaviour just by tweaking things. As a result, parents are sent into a cycle of looking for help indefinitely, and nothing is ever resolved.

Picky eating is simply a symptom of a larger issue. It is the equivalent of a fog horn blaring out across the landscape on a cold, foggy day, warning ships of danger. The sooner you listen and take stock of the fact that there is trouble ahead, the sooner you can take evasive action and start looking at picky eating in the context of your child’s general behaviour.

Picky eating food battles equal control battles.

If your little girl is refusing food consistently and it’s become a problem, it’s because she’s starting to see that she has control in certain areas. If you’re lucky and she displays this kind of behaviour only at meals, then it’s likely she’s reacting to your anxiety, and you can fix it by taking the lead and simply reacting calmly to her pickiness and removing the anxiety from the experience.

Eat normally as a family and wait for her to join in.

That means you have to back off, provide all kinds of foods, and if she doesn’t eat them, then you simply remove the snacks and allow her to get hungry enough for her to change her mind at the next meal. Yes, because she can’t communicate, you’ll have to put up with some horrible whining, but it’s really important you stay calm while that happens.

If you do, it will stop when she realizes there is food to be had, but only at certain points. She may be angry with you, but the picky eating will stop promptly. If you’re seeing controlling behaviour show up elsewhere, then you know there are moments when you need to review how you’re leading her.  Dealing with this now will save you a lot of heartache later on, as picky eating can develop into an eating disorder over time.

Picky eating can become a disorder.

When parents think of picky eating, they tend to think of it in the context of just having it when their children are young. When children categorically reject certain foods, that habit can last much longer than early childhood and may set them up to deny themselves more foods as they grow.  

Mass media influences and the need to be thin are so alluring to so many children. They want to fit in and to stand out as attractive amongst their peers, and body image becomes caught up in their self-esteem and how they view themselves. Eating disorders are endemic and at an all-time high in the Western world. Some of it has been exacerbated by the events caused by the pandemic and the resulting isolation that many children felt. For many, it has become a coping mechanism as much of their world has turned upside down. But as a result, mental health facilities are overwhelmed with the number of young people suffering from eating disorders, and even help these days has become harder to access.

How to deal with a picky eater: Picky eating is solvable.

However, if you tackle this now, it is a very solvable problem, and like so much, it’s about breaking your reaction to your little one’s control over food. It’s about showing leadership even in the face of difficulty. It’s about being calm and confident and allowing yourself to detach from the emotion surrounding your child’s eating habits. Dealing with a picky eater is hard, but it’s not insurmountable.

To get more of your parenting questions answered or to get personal help with your child or children, please visit my parenting services page. 

I hope you found this helpful.

Best, Annie

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