20 Tips for Picky Eaters
If you have a picky eater in your family – you are not alone – most American households have at least one.
Picky eating is very common in toddlers, and as long as parents continue to offer a wide range of healthy choices and do not cater to their pickiness, many kids will outgrow this stage. But picky kids can become picky teenagers and even adults if allowed to continue eating “kid food.”
Our bodies need antioxidants, vitamins and minerals to support all cellular functions. Picky eaters generally consume a very narrow range of foods, which tend to be lacking in nutrients and fiber. This can lead to nutrient deficiencies, lowered immune system, constipation, and even other problems like delayed growth and bone strength/ density problems (read Building Strong Bones in Kids). Eating a highly processed diet also increased the risk for weight gain and all degenerative diseases including heart disease and diabetes later in life.
The younger you can start, the better, because as kids get older – their eating habits get more “set” and difficult to change, and they are more independent – making more decisions on their own. But it is never too late to start improving dietary habits – even picky adults can do it! Just don’t expect a picky eater to change over night – for some, it can take months, even years!
SOME TYPICAL PICKY EATER “PROFILES”:
The “Super-taster”– about a quarter of the population has more tastebuds on their tongue than the average – so foods really do taste and smell stronger to them, especially those with bitter compounds like broccoli. But because of the extra taste buds, super-tasters can have very discriminating palates – so if encouraged to develop and expand their palate – they can be the chefs and the sommeliers of the world. It is worth encouraging them to expand beyond pizza and mac n’ cheese – they just might be the next Giada De Laurentiis or Bobby Flay some day! Read: Super-tasting Science: Find Out if You’re a Supertaster to learn more and to get a simple test you can do at home to see if you are a super-taster.
The “Texture-phobe” – is sensitive to the texture of food, they examine foods for lumps and don’t like to “feel” the texture on their tongue. Often, these kids can be more sensitive in other sensory areas too such as sound and touch. This kind of picky eater can respond well to things like smoothies, and hiding pureed fruits and veggies into other foods. A Vitamix or a powerful blender is an essential tool if you have a texture phobe – because it gets rid of texture.
The “Snacker”- eats very little at scheduled mealtimes, because they are snacking all the time. They might push dinner around on their plate, but shortly after dinner is into the pantry for a “snack.” Or the snacker is often just “too starving” to wait for dinner – and gets into the Goldfish beforehand, filling up. One strategy for the Snacker is to put away the crackers and instead put veggies and hummus to snack on before dinner. Another tactic is to boost protein and healthy fat intake throughout the day – snackers tend to eat a high simple carbohydrate diet, which can lead to blood sugar spikes and drops – which can negatively affect mood, energy, and hunger. Many “snack foods” are what I refer to as “filler foods” – they fill you up, but offer very little nutritional value.
The “Controller” – wants to exert control over a situation – such as what they will eat and will not eat. Offering choices that you can live with a great approach for these kids – would you have 3 or 5 more pieces of broccoli? Or read below for some of the ideas to take the power struggles out of the equation and make fruit and veggies “fun.”
The “Drinker” – is common among toddlers and young children. This child walks around with a sippy cup all day long, even using it as kind of a security blanket. The drinker fills up on milk or juice, and then isn’t as hungry for food. Instead of taking the cup away, simply put water into it outside of meals. Limit juice to 4 oz. of 100% juice each day. This issue also rears it’s ugly head again with teens, who consume more sodas, sports, lattes, and energy drinks than any other age group. But teens also require more nutrition than ever, to support their rapid physical, emotional, and intellectual growth. Encouraging them to limit the sugar-laden drinks will help make sure they are getting the right nutrition their growing bodies need. Smoothies are also a great solution for ‘Drinkers’ – because you can pack a lot of nutrition into smoothies – add in chia seeds, greens, and more.
Underlying medical issue – Being tongue-tied or another structural issue, digestive disorders, food allergies/intolerances, and other physiological problems can all lead to picky eating. Autism or sensory processing can also make a kid more sensitive to foods and textures. If none of the below approaches work, it might be worth a trip to a specialist to look into some possible physiological or deeper psychological causes. If a child is having a particularly strong reaction to trying new foods – it is smart to consider finding a feeding specialist for an evaluation.
20 TIPS FOR TRANSFORMING PICKY EATERS:
1. Ditch the “kid food.”
Feeding kids a separate dinner, or always give them “kid-food” will not help a child to expand their palate. Besides the extra time it takes to prepare a separate meal for the kids each night, most “kid food” tends to be nutritionally deficient. In order for kids to develop their palate, they need to be exposed to a wide variety of foods, sitting down to the same meal together helps children explore different tastes and flavors. How else is your child going to develop the taste for salmon or Brussels sprouts – if they are never exposed to it? Sometimes due to parent’s work schedules this is not possible for everyone to sit down together, so having a family meal whenever possible is a good plan. A recent study showed that eating together as a family encourages kids to try new foods. Eating together as a family has also been shown to offer other benefits, read Bring Back the Family Meal for more info.
2. Follow a 90/10 rule.
It is the things we do most of the time that have the biggest impact on our health. The 90/10 rule is a good “real world” plan. It encourages healthy choices most of the time, but allows for some flexibility. On this plan, 90% of the diet comes from “healthy” nutrient dense foods, and the 10% left can be “splurge” foods. The Obama’s shared that their family followed this plan when their girls were young. The 90/10 Rule allows for occasional treats, but only if kids have eaten a primarily healthy diet, such as having 5 servings of vegetables and fruits. Even getting to an 80/20 ratio would be a big improvement for many! Too often, kids who eat very few to no vegetables at dinner (or all day) will then fix themselves a huge bowl of ice cream or another sweet dessert. My husband came up with this rule – “your dessert can not be bigger than the serving of veggies you had for dinner.”
3. Stop the power-struggles.
Some kids are picky for attention, or to exert their independence. Instead of giving them attention for negative behavior, focus on and encourage the positive. You could set up a reward system – put out a jar, and let them earn marbles or coins for trying new foods, or eating their veggies. If they are getting more attention for making healthy choices – that will reinforce the “good” behaviors. Another strategy is to offer 2 choices that you can live with – “would you like a salad or broccoli with dinner tonight?” When kids are able to make a choice, they feel more independent and in control.
4. Have FUN!
Humor is also a great tactic for breaking through power struggles – be silly and have fun at mealtimes. One way to make food fun is to cut it into fun shapes. I like to use little fondant cutters to cut fruit & veggies into fun shapes, kids also like to make melon balls. Put the shapes and melon balls onto skewers – and stick them into a watermelon that was cut in half and put upside down – and you have a beautiful centerpiece (see eHow video). Set up a salad bar at home. The kids get their lettuce, and then add the different veggies that they like – red peppers, carrot shreds, etc. Link this into the rewards system, and they get points for trying a new veggie, or for each one they add to the salad. Experts even encourage kids to play with their food – our kids like to eat their Brussels sprouts with their hands and peel off each layer – hey, they are eating and loving their Brussels sprouts, so why quabble about table manners at this point? If we were out to a nice dinner – we would probably discourage eating with hands however.
5. Keep Track.
When kids are paying attention to how many fruits and veggies they really are eating every day – it can be eye-opening (for parents too!). You could create a food chart, or I have seen great success when kids use Silly Bandz to track their daily fruit & veggie consumption. Simply put all of the bands on their left wrist in the morning, and each time they eat a serving (not a bite) of fruit or veggies – they get to move 1 band to the right wrist! The goal should be to have at least 5 or more on the right wrist at the end of the day – it is a fun, visual & tactile way to keep fruit & veggies on the brain & stay motivated. You’d be amazed at how motivating it is to move bands over. If you are sitting down to dinner and all the bands are still on the left wrist, it says something about their diet that day (and often their energy and mood will coincide)!! Some families might decide to make dessert conditional – the daily veggie and fruit goal must be met in order to have dessert (this goes back to the 90/10 rule).
6. Food is Fuel.
Help kids understand how foods affect how their bodies feel and function. Sugary cereals or doughnuts for breakfast can cause them to crash and burn, that kind of fuel won’t help them “ace” their test or help get their team to All-Stars. Teach kids to be “intuitive eaters,” to think about how a food makes their bodies feel or function. Many foods (like sugary foods) make you feel great for about 15 minutes, but then your body crashes, along with your mood and your brain function. Some foods can cause digestive troubles too. Help you child connect to how a food makes them feel – 30 minutes, 1-2 hours after eating it. So if they overindulge in candy, cookies or another food that leaves them feeling icky – use it as a learning opportunity. Ask them how all that sugar made their body feel. Some people live their whole lives and do not make the connection between what they eat and how their body feels. Helping kids t