How To Fix Your Picky-Eating Child

I’ll admit it. I have some seriously strong opinions on this topic, so fasten your seat belts and keep your arms and legs inside at all times, because this might be a bumpy ride.

There are a few reasons a kid might be a picky eater, like Sensory Processing Disorder. These kids might have OCD, ADHD, Autism, or possibly just the disorder alone. The disorder makes children either over-sensitive or under-sensitive to external stimuli (like lights, textures, sounds, pain, etc). So this is a realistic reason why a kid might have an aversion to certain foods.

It can effect anywhere from 5-16% school-aged children, and it’s mostly because their brain structure is different. It’s a biological thing.

Question: So what about the other 74-95% of children?
Answer: They’re probably spoiled.

I have three children. I get it. Meal times can be difficult, and sometimes it feels like the fighting and fussing just isn’t worth the trouble. I promise you though, it is.

“Quit crying or I’ll give you a mushroom to cry about.”

There’s some advice out there (like this article from CNN) that says we shouldn’t pressure our children to eat things they don’t want to eat. Our kids are going to grow up fine and healthy. It doesn’t matter if they eat their vegetables, it just matters that they’re actually eating.

This is mostly true.

According to the NIH, Type II Diabetes is on the rise. Here’s a direct quote:

““Because of the early age of onset and longer diabetes duration, youth are at risk for developing diabetes related complications at a younger age. This profoundly lessens their quality of life, shortens their life expectancy, and increases health care costs,” said Giuseppina Imperatore, M.D., Ph.D., epidemiologist in CDC’s Division of Diabetes Translation, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.”

This isn’t because children are refusing a few foods here and there, it’s because parents are letting their children choose junk food over real food.

While that makes for a happy child at meal times, it may not be the best approach. According to this study, what a child eats while they’re still young is probably going to affect what they choose to eat as an adult. So if your kid only eats spaghetti and chocolate, they’re less likely to order a salad as an adult.

It’s very popular these days to have “kids menus” at restaurants where the portion sizes are smaller, and the food is presumed to be more “kid friendly.” You can also Google “kid friendly lunches” or “kid friendly snacks,” so you can find recipes that are specifically designed to get kids to like them. You can also find this separation of food in the grocery store. Walking through the aisles you’ll see cartoon shaped pasta, brightly colored marshmallow cereals, designer Lunchables boxes, and neon tubes of yogurt. We adults have our versions of these same exact things, except they come in plain packaging, normal shapes, and bland colors. They’re not trying to entice us to eat the food, they know we’ll eat the food. But that’s not the case when it comes to feeding our children, and it’s not their fault for pandering to us, it’s our fault for pandering to our kids.

Believe it or not, food is food. Regardless of age.

This is human food, not adult food.

The kid’s menu at a restaurant shouldn’t be dominated by chicken tenders and pizza. They should offer some of the same dishes that are on the adult menu, just in a smaller portion size.

I can’t tell you how annoying it is at Mexican restaurants when I try to get my kid’s tacos. Nine times out of ten they only come with meat and cheese, so I end up having to pay extra for some vegetables to go on them. Kid’s meal cheeseburgers rarely have more than ketchup, mustard, and pickle on them. Pizza slices are usually limited to cheese or pepperoni.

I know some adults like to eat like that, but most don’t.

Their habits can cause another problem – ungratefulness. It’s really embarrassing when you take your child over to someone’s home after they’ve cooked a meal for your family, and your child acts like a grade-A snob.

“Ay, you talkin’ a me?”

Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I was always taught to eat what I was given, and I expect my children to do the same. You smile, say thank you, and eat at least three quarters of what was on the plate whether it’s something you particularly like or not. I know not everyone will agree with this approach, but it’s honestly the most polite thing you could do after someone has bought the groceries, cooked the food, and invited you into their home.

Here are a few problem behaviors I see from parents:

  • Making separate meals
  • Automatically assuming a child won’t like something before they have even tried it
  • Projecting their own eating preferences on their kids
  • Not making them try new things
  • Buying a lot of processed junk food for snacks
  • Hitting the drive-thru too often
  • Letting their children choose the menu for every meal
  • Tricking them (hiding food inside of other food, for example)
  • Giving them Pediasure to make up for nutritional deficiencies
  • Being a bad role model

If you want your child to eat anything and everything, you have to feed them anything and everything. That means you too! We can’t expect our kids to pick a side of vegetables at a restaurant if we are constantly ordering the macaroni and potatoes. Be a good role model.

The adults earn the money and decide where it’s going to be spent. The children don’t have control over this until you allow them to. I like to be nice to my kids, so I buy groceries for spaghetti and tacos because it’s their favorite meals; however, I am doing that to be nice. It’s not really necessary. That’s why we have curry, stir-fry, chicken, pork, wraps, or whatever else we want for the rest of the week. We are feeding everyone, not just our kids, so everyone’s taste buds need to be taken into account. When you allow your child to make the decision for every meal, you’re reinforcing that natural bossy nature they have. They all think they’re the center of the universe until we teach them that it isn’t true, and a good way to assist with that very long, difficult process is to let them know that other people get to decide what’s for lunch also.

“Well your manners looked good last quarter, but we need to see better numbers from the sharing department or there’ll be no pizza party.”

Don’t hide the peas inside of the mashed potatoes, put them on the side. If your six year old protests, tell her she doesn’t have to eat them. If she doesn’t want to eat them, then she can just eat everything else and be done with dinner. Don’t give her second helpings of anything until the plate is clear, because obviously she isn’t hungry enough for extra mashed potatoes if she isn’t hungry enough to eat her peas.

What if it’s the entire plate that he’s refusing? Make him take at least three bites of something, and then he can be done. Don’t offer an alternative meal, a snack, or anything else until the next meal rolls around unless he’d like his original plate back (that means no dessert). If it’s bedtime and your child didn’t touch their dinner, it can feel like you’re being mean, but you’re not. You did your job as a parent to give your child food, but you have to respect the decision your child made when they decided they weren’t going to eat it. They can just have a big breakfast the next day, and they aren’t going to die of starvation in the night. I promise.

Using Pediasure isn’t always a bad thing. I know it offers a lot of nutritional benefits for kids, so obviously it doesn’t hurt to give it to your child. What isn’t a good idea is offering your child a cup alongside a nutritionally deficient meal. If they’ve been refusing meals and get thirsty, go ahead and give them some.

Preventative measures are always the best, and picky eating is no different. Most babies are eating solids around 6 months old, and we have the natural inclination to grab the packaged snacks in the baby aisle, but we have to be sure that we’re also offering other foods. There are plenty of other healthy, baby-friendly snacks that we can give to them, and as they get older we need to offer more variety. When they’re toddlers, give them exactly what you’re eating. Don’t pick parts of it out and offer up the things you think they’d like more. I know it’s fun to feed them ice-cream and other sweets because it’s adorable when they smile and get chocolate all over their faces, but try to refrain from doing it too often. Only give them sweets as often as you’d eat them, which should only be a few times a week. When they start getting older and vocalizing their preferred tastes, take them into consideration if they’re reasonable, but let them know that sometimes they’re going to have to get over it.

This facial expression works best.

I live in a blended family. I fully empathize with you if your child is picky, but you also have to rely on a separate household to help you fix the problem. If your ex-partner refuses to help you curb these stubborn behaviors (or worse, is causing them), there isn’t a lot you can do besides letting your child know “my house, my rules.”

Good luck to you! Things will get easier!

Do you have any of these issues? How do you feel about this? Let me know in the comments!

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