Having picky eaters can drive any parent up the wall. So if you want to know how to handle a picky eater, the first thing to look at is why you might be getting the behaviour and only then, what you can do about it. Firstly, I know how frustrating it can be. There is nothing worse for any parent than being faced with a child who won’t for whatever reason, eat. Even if they’re normal on the growth chart, it’s still supremely worrying for any mom or dad to watch their little one turn their nose up at all but a very limited type of food. Perhaps your child is like one mom I helped, whose child would only eat yoghurt and french fries.
If you’re faced with this dilemma, perhaps you have tried every idea in the book. You’ve made alien planet landing craft shapes out of dinner, played games or disguised veggies or other healthy foods any way you can and still your little one has his or her mouth firmly closed.
How picky eaters develop
If this is something you’re struggling with, I want to start by taking you on a story of how picky eating issues often develop. Let’s pretend there’s a mom with a little boy who has been eating pretty well since he was introduced to solid foods. One day, at breakfast her little boy clamps his mouth firmly shut and there’s just no way mom can get that spoon any where near him. 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 let’s her little one get down, unfazed by the whole refusal thing.
It’s all in how you react to your picky eater
But let’s pretend that instead of reacting calmly, this mom harbours worries about her child’s small size. “Oh, my little baby boy is only in the 5th Percentile for weight…yikes!’ Mum approaches the meal with trepidation. She’s worried and shows it. 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 working 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.
Over time the child feels the tension
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. Every one 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.
Continue giving attention to your picky eater’s habits and natural leadership fades
Suddenly the little boy feels weird, unprotected, out of control because his rock is faltering and his adult family members are looking concerned. Deep down within, the child has a desperate need for assurance. The little boy needs to know his parents know how to handle him and now that the rock that he has relied on for so long has suddenly disintegrated, he becomes worried. Every meal it gets worse and soon more and more foods are being pushed away. Now he’ll 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.
Multiple approaches to the picky eating problem causes a bigger issue
Last but not least, every 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.
Ok, so even though this is a pretend story you can see how this mother’s anxiety and trepidation and expectations around meals eventually ended up sustaining the very behaviour she wanted to stop.
How to handle a picky eater: what can you do?
If you want to know how to handle a picky eater, it is to make sure you provide three regular meals a day and leave it up to your child, whether or not to eat them. By making sure you don’t provide snacks until they are eating properly, you allow them to develop the natural hunger to push them in the right direction.
If they come to the table and eat normally, spend lots of time chatting and engaging them in conversation. If they don’t, completely ignore them. That means if they get down from the table you don’t panic but you pretend they are not there, even if they are pulling on your clothes. Be a good actor and look as if you are having the conversation of a lifetime with whoever else is at the table. Only pay attention to them when they are up at the table.
Make no comment about what they are eating or how much. Don’t engage in negotiation about what they will or won’t eat, period. Change the topic. The message you are sending is that you have three meals a day and you’d be delighted for them to join you for those three meals, but if they don’t, that’s up to them. Then, let them get hungry. Kids are remarkably good at doing what’s in their best interest if you can relax enough to allow that to develop. Tough I know, but so worth it.
A happy child is a resilient child. Read more about resilience and what you can do now to help your child develop it here.
Did you know? Annie the Nanny writes for all sorts of online blogs and magazines like Mum Rx and others. Do you need an expert opinion or informative material. If so, contact Annie the Nanny here. For more about how Annie can help you personally with your family, please go to her services page.