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Nurturing Healthy Habits in Picky Eaters Without Wearing Yourself Out

Family eating

Gone are the days when I would call my mother crying, because my soon to be one year old had a diet of primarily breast milk and a few select fruits and vegetables. I was an exhausted first time mom to a toddler and even with my experience in childcare, nothing prepared me for how worrisome the task of introducing my child to new homemade foods would be. I quickly realizing that I had a picky eater on my hands.

I struggled terribly in the beginning, but eventually delved into practical strategies that completely transformed her into an adventurous eater. The journey to embracing nutritious foods was challenging and rewarding. It also prepared me to deal with my second child, once a great eater, who is now going through her picky eating stage at six years old.

Here are some of the tips to nurture a picky eater:

Understanding Picky Eating:

Picky eating isn't about being stubborn; it often stems from various factors such as sensory sensitivities, texture aversions, a power struggle, behavior modeled by caretakers or simply a fear of the unknown. Picky eating habits are also more likely to develop when caretakers punish, bribe, or reward their children's eating behavior. Recognizing the underlying reasons behind your child's picky eating is crucial to devising effective solutions.

For my first daughter the first sign was when I introduced products containing wheat. She displayed symptoms of contact dermatitis and worsening eczema. A one year allergy chest confirmed many food allergies. She pretty soon began resisting foods that she wasn’t allergic to and stuck to limited choices of fruit and vegetables. Realizing that helped in making the decision to start a gluten free , egg free and nut free diet. My younger daughter who once ate many fruits and vegetables, now barely touches one because she no longer likes the taste and/or texture. Knowing the root can help tremendously with finding solutions.

Share responsibility:

As a parent, I am responsible for setting the tone of what meal time looks like. For the most part, I determine what, where and when food is provided. My kids decide whether or not to eat the food, and how much to eat. In my initial fear that my child was starving herself, I tried encouraging my picky eater to try things, to eat this because “It’s good for you,” but very quickly realized that what I was doing was coercion and nothing good comes out of that. I had to realize that I owed her nothing more than a balanced meal and she owed herself the responsibility of listening to her hunger cues. Once my children showed they were capable of feeding themselves I allowed them to take on that responsibility, with supervision and absent of coercion.

Creating a Positive Food Environment:

Fostering a positive attitude towards food is key to encouraging adventurous eating. In my house, there are no separate meals for adults and children. We all eat the same thing with few modifications. Dinner time is meant to be relaxing, so we set the environment for comfort and ease by putting on soothing background music which my daughters love and enjoy. Electronic devices are not allowed at the table. This allows us to focus on conversation instead of battles at the dinner table. The girls are also allowed to have Joe’s Os—Trader Joe’s equivalent of Cheerios—and milk if they don’t want to have what is being served. By no means will I be making a separate meal. I am not a sous chef.

Involving Picky Eaters in Meal Preparation:

Engaging picky eaters in the cooking process can spark curiosity and make them more invested in trying new foods. Whether it's picking out fresh ingredients at the grocery store or assisting in simple meal preparations, involving them in the kitchen fosters a sense of ownership over their food choices. With their dietary needs changing on a whim, this is a great opportunity to see where your child is at on the food wheel. You will be surprised about how much children’s food preferences change ‘daily.’ Left up to my six year old, we would eat noodles daily for dinner daily, but she hardly ever knows what she wants for breakfast or lunch. It’s also a great idea to have your child help plan an entire family dinner, from finding start to finish. I’ve done this a couple of times with my daughter and she loves it. Kids develop a deeper sense of what goes into planning a family meal.

Introducing New Foods Gradually:

Balanced eating habits is a Iifelong habit. New foods should be introduced gradually, incorporating them into familiar dishes or pairing them with beloved favorites. Encourage tasting without pressure, emphasizing the exploration of flavors rather than forcing consumption. I’ve passed a trick to the girls that stands the test of time regarding how I learned to eat foods I didn’t like. Put a bite of a food I like along with what I don’t like together on a single bite to mask the taste. Funny enough, my eight year old tried it out and this has been her strategy when she has tried a food and is uncertain about it.

Leading by Example:

There is the saying, “Children do what they see, not what they’re told.” This is relevant to their dietary choices. Children often mimic the behaviors they see around them. Set a positive example by demonstrating adventurous eating habits yourself. Let them see you savoring new flavors and embracing a diverse range of foods, reinforcing the notion that trying new things is exciting and rewarding.

Seeking Professional Guidance:

In cases where picky eating significantly impacts nutritional intake or quality of life, seeking guidance from healthcare professionals such as pediatricians or dietitians is essential. They can offer personalized advice and support tailored to the specific needs of the picky eater.

Transforming picky eaters into enthusiastic food explorers isn't an overnight feat, but with patience, creativity, and a sprinkle of perseverance, it's entirely achievable. By fostering a positive food environment, involving picky eaters in meal preparation, and introducing new foods gradually, we can pave the way for a lifetime of healthy eating habits. So, here's to embarking on a delicious journey of culinary discovery, one bite at a time!

(Photo: Jimmy Dean/Unsplash)


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