Help! My Child is a Picky Eater!

Kids, food, and behavior… Where should I even start? A story from my own childhood comes to mind. When I was a toddler, I decided that the only food I wanted to eat was saltine crackers. Being a stubborn individual even at such a young age, I gave my mother a run for her money. She offered me peanut butter and jelly, but I said, “No!” She put cereal in front of me, but I refused to touch it. At dinnertime I refused to even look at the spaghetti she had made. In situations like this, what’s a parent to do?! Now that I’m a mother myself, I have come to realize that food can be one of the most challenging parts of parenting. As parents, we are charged with caring for the health and wellbeing of our kids, but it is not possible to force children to eat what they do not want to eat. No parent wants his or her children to “starve,” so we are tempted to cave in to our their requests. Recently I overheard a mother explain that her pediatrician recommended letting her toddler snack on whatever he wanted during the day, as long as she supplemented his nutrition with a popular meal replacement beverage. I’m not saying there aren’t cases where extreme measures are warranted, but to me this sounded like a horrible long-term solution to picky eating! Looking through the lens of applied behavior analysis, here are six strategies that have helped me tame the beast of the picky eater in my own home. I hope they will help you, too!

  1. Say goodbye to packaged snacks

You’ve probably heard the old saying, “If they’re hungry, they’ll eat.” This is very simple, but very true! One way to encourage children to eat is to make sure they’re actually hungry when mealtime comes around. This may mean eating less during the periods in between meals. Now I am not suggesting that you cut out snacking all together, but you can control what snacks you offer your children. Personally, I have made the decision to only offer fruits and veggies as snack options in between meals. As opposed to snacks like chips, cookies, and crackers, fresh produce is less likely to curb one’s appetite for more than a short while. I am not saying you have to cut out packaged foods completely, but it may be better to serve these items right after meals or just occasionally as a special treat rather than as snacks.

  1. Timing is everything

As parents, we often have to be strategic in interactions with our children. If Sofia is feeling under the weather, didn’t sleep well the night before, and had a rough day at school, it is probably not be the right day to offer her a new food or try to get her to eat a food she has previously rejected. Sounds obvious, right? Well, let me share where parents often go wrong. Rather than using this strategy proactively, they use it reactively. Once they place food in front of Sofia and she refuses to try it, then they give her a preferred food. Unfortunately this often results in a pattern of food refusal that can hang around long after the bad day has been forgotten. Therefore, try to prevent food refusal by offering preferred foods on the hard days, but do your best not to cave in once undesired behavior has been displayed.

  1. Dangle the carrot

This is a simple, yet scientifically verified truth that can be applied to several areas of life. In food terms it equates to, “After you eat your vegetables, then you can have dessert.” Now, this does not mean that you need to offer dessert or other junk food to your children on a daily basis. Rather, choose foods that you feel comfortable offering to your child on a consistent basis (e.g., juice, crackers, popcorn, etc.). In order for this to work, there are two key things to keep in mind. First, the food has to be something your child really likes. Second, this strategy will work best if you keep your “carrot” valuable by not offering it to your child in other circumstances.

  1. Sometimes easier is better

This strategy is specifically geared towards younger toddlers who are still developing fine motor skills. As a human species, we are more likely to do things when they are easier, and it takes more motivation to do things that are difficult. Therefore, even if your son or daughter can independently eat, you may want to help them… at least with their first few bites. You may find that after the first few bites your child eats independently. Why is that so, you ask? Without getting too technical, food is naturally rewarding when we are hungry and so our bodies encourage us to keep eating until we are full.

  1. A little less talk, and a lot more action

No, I don’t mean this in the way it was originally intended… but I do love this old country song! What I mean is this: once your child has refused food, it usually isn’t beneficial to try to have a logical conversation with him or her. Instead, use very simple statements and then stop discussing the topic all together. For example I might say, “If you want your toast, then you have to eat your chicken and vegetables.” When my son refuses to eat, I don’t try to force him (a battle that cannot be won!), but I don’t let him leave the table until the rest of the family has finished eating. Although it can be tempting to engage in lengthy discussions, these exchanges give a lot of attention to behaviors we do not want to encourage. Just like there is no such thing as bad publicity in the entertainment industry, there is no such thing as bad attention in parenting… Attention in the form of disapproval actually has a similar impact on behavior as attention in the form of praise.

  1. One step at a time

I’ll use an example out of my own life to explain this concept. When my husband and I got married in our early twenties, we decided that we wanted to become wine connoisseurs. We went to the store and excitedly picked out a bottle of red wine. After we prepared our steak, we eagerly uncorked our bottle and poured two large glasses. Toasting to our new hobby, we each took a big sip… and then almost choked on the overwhelming, heavy taste of the bold wine. What a disappointment that was for us! Looking back, I’m glad we didn’t give up on wine all together after that experience. Rather, the next time we were in the store we bought a cheap white zinfandel and loved it! Over the next year or so we went through the sweet whites, found our way to chardonnay and then to pinot noir, and finally graduated to cabernet sauvignon. Using this principle with picky eaters means that parents should start small and with realistic expectations. If your child only wants to eat bread carbs, you should not expect him or her to immediately switch to salad. Instead, your first goal might be to start incorporating a few fruits into the daily menu. Little by little, you can begin to incorporate different healthy foods into his or her “food repertoire.” Keep this in mind: behavior change takes time! The strategies listed above are based upon proven behavioral principles, but that does not mean they will work right away.

I hope these six strategies will help you curb the picky eater in your home!

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