My Experiences with a Picky Eater: Tips to Help you with Yours

Do you have a picky eater? Tips for how to handle a picky eater.

(  Have you ever found it difficult to get your child to eat vegetables?  I have. Years ago when I worked in public health, I had developed and taught classes on how to handle picky eating in children.  I thought I had it all figured out – it was simple, right?  Parents are responsible for offering nutritious foods in a safe place at fairly consistent times; children are responsible for deciding if they will eat, and how much.  In other words, the “feeding relationship” developed by the highly regarded dietitian and social worker Ellyn Satter.  When I was “blessed” with a picky eater of my own, I realized that handling picky eating is both simple – and yet very complex. 

Picky eating is a very emotional experience for parents.  I felt like a failure.  I could set goals and achieve them in my professional life, but apparently not in my own family.  Here I was – a dietitian - with professional experience in preventing and managing picky eating in other people’s lives – but I could NOT get my own child to eat his vegetables.  

I knew how important vegetables are for health – how they are a great source of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and that fiber will help to promote healthy growth, healthy weights and healthy bowels, and that children should consume 4-6 servings/day of vegetables and fruit.  With this professional knowledge and experience, I felt a lot of social pressure to have a “good eater” – after all, if I couldn’t do it, how good of a dietitian was I any way?

There are many things at play when it comes to a child’s willingness to try a new food.  Here are just a few questions to consider:

  • Is my child healthy or does she have [yet another] virus?  If she is sick, her appetite may be poor.
  • Has my child been active so that he has an appetite for new food?  If he has been mostly still, she may not  need to eat large amounts of food.
  • Has my child filled up on milk and/or juice before her snack or meal? Filling up on milk and/or juice takes away appetite and interest in trying new foods.
  • Does my child arrive at the table hungry and ready to eat, or has he been grazing on little food snacks throughout the day?  Children need to arrive at the table hungry and ready to eat.  Structure and planned snacks are important.  Hitting this magical window is not easy.
  • What is the meal environment like – is there palpable pressure to try the new food?  Can he see my vested interest in him trying this vegetable?  Trying new foods is easier when there is good food and good feelings all around.

Shaping a Child’s Eating Habits is a Bit Like Shaping Play Dough:

If I gave you a ball of play-dough and asked you to shape it into a round ball, how would you do it?  You would gently take the play-dough in between your hands, and use circular motions to form a ball.  If you are too rough, you get a flattened ball of play-dough.  If you don’t apply any pressure, you form a mis-shaped blob.

I have found this analogy helpful when I approach improving my child’s eating habits [and other parenting challenges].  As Steven Covey so brilliantly said "Begin with the end in mind".  Think about the "end" you envision for your child's eating.  Provide structure, offer encouragement [not praise], set expectations, but don’t be too harsh or too soft.  It’s that simple – and that complex.

There is absolutely science involved when it comes to promoting healthy eating in children.  There is also a lot of art to your approach - what worked for me might not work for you – and vice versa.  However, thinking of shaping your child’s eating habits as it relates to play dough - be kind and firm - might help take a bit of the pressure off you. 

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Written by Kristyn Hall MSc, RD, Director and Dietitian, HealthCastle Calgary.  Thank you to Laurel Zvaigzne BSc Natural Science and BSc Dietetics [candidate] for her contributions to the research behind this post.


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