Knowing how to handle a picky eater can save parents a whole lot of stress because, let’s face it, having a picky eater can drive any parent up the wall. So, if you want to know how to handle a picky eater, you should first consider why you might be getting the behaviour and 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 the mom I helped, whose child would only eat yogurt 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 to handle a picky eater: How they develop
If this is something you’re struggling with, I want to start by taking you on a story about 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 anywhere 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 applies a wet cloth to that firmly closed mouth and lets her little one get down, unfazed by the whole refusal thing.
It’s all in how you react
But let’s pretend that instead of reacting calmly and learning how to handle her little picky eater, this mom harbours worries about her child’s small size. “Oh, my little baby boy is only in the 5th percentile for weight…yikes!” Mom 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 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.
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. 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.
Continue giving attention to your picky eater’s habits and natural leadership fades
Suddenly the little boy feels weird, unprotected, and 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 that 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. It gets worse with each meal, and soon more and more foods are being pushed away. Now he’ll only eat yogurt or cereal. Mom becomes upset and calls friends to discuss the problem, or she confers with the other mothers during playtime about 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, 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, 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 that will 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 is, if they get up from the table, you do not panic but instead pretend they are not there, even if they are tugging 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 negotiations 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. If you can relax enough to allow them to develop, children are remarkably good at doing what is in their best interests. It’s 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. Would you like to know how to get your toddler to go to sleep easily so you can all have a good rest? Read Annie the Nanny’s answer to one mom’s comment of “I need some sleep!“
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