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Panicked Over Picky Eaters

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Dealing With a Picky Eater

Is your child a picky eater?

  • Will your child only eat one or two foods or  food groups?
  • Is their idea of a wide range of food every thing from french fries to tater tots?
  • Do they push away anything resembling a vegetable?
  • Do they love anything that comes individually wrapped?

Are you the parent of a picky eater?

  • Do you worry your child might suffer from lack of nutrition?
  • Do you serve different meals to different family members according to their eating preferences?
  • Do you eat your own dinner after your children have eaten because you want “adult” food?

If you answered yes to any of the above I have some thoughts for you:

Most parental concern is about the picky eater’s health since they appear to lack nutritional balance. I suggest that their primary concern should be the life lessons that catering to a picky eater can inadvertently teach.

Parents take their job seriously when it comes to the basics of life and tend to get very busy when it comes to their child’s eating. This concern results in parents giving in to kids’ demands in the name of nutrition and avoiding starvation.

But consider for a moment how truly rare hunger and malnutrition are in North America. Malnutrition in the form of vitamin deficiencies is almost completely unheard of in affluent developed countries that have processed breads, cereals, and milk with essential vitamins and minerals added as a public health measure. And humans can go seven days without food. While extended time without food is not recommended, a few hours of waiting for a cracker is not going to be the end of anyone.

On the other hand, sharing food is an essential part of family living and a child must learn how to live as part of a whole, and understand that others have their own individual tastes and preferences too. Sharing and cooperating within the family builds the child’s understanding of how to cooperate in a world where not everyone can have their way at all times.

So look at picky eating as an opportunity to rid your child of the mistaken belief that the road of life bends to their path. Instead, work with your child to find cooperative solutions.

Dealing With Picky Eaters

Keep A Record
Parents think kids are not eating because they don’t eat at meal times. I suggest parents write down everything their children eat for a week before commencing this plan.

You will probably find that there is plenty going in outside of set meal times. It is all the form of juice bottles, raisin boxes, Dunkeroos, and gnawed on bagels eaten in a car seat. These "snack-meals" are displacing meals served at the table. Kids learn to not eat meals at the table and instead choose to wait to eat “snack meals” instead.

Create Routines
The first step in helping your child be a co-operative eater is serving meals and snacks at predictable times. For young children, three meals a day plus a mid-morning and a mid-afternoon snack (and I mean just a nibble) should do it. If you offer some fruit before bedtime you can feel secure that your child is being offered an opportunity to fuel their bodies healthily every few hours.

Not Eating Is A Choice
If you have made and served good food, your work is done. It is a child’s responsibility to eat from the choices served.

Some children will choose NO food from the table, as they may feel everything is yucky. That is okay. They can excuse themselves. You can wrap up their plate and pop it in the fridge.

Don’t concern yourself or make a fuss about what they eat at meal times. Let the natural consequence of hunger do the teaching. Hungry children will eat.

Picky eaters don’t usually get a chance to experience true hunger – their parents jump in too fast and save them through catering to their preferences or compensating with big yummy snacks. Avoid this by following the routine and order without exception.

If your picky eater complains of hunger after the meal you can offer them to eat from their wrapped up plate in the fridge at any time.

Offer Limited Choices
Parents can control the choices by only buying and offering good healthy food choices. Kids can’t sneak and demand food that is not there.

Offer More Choice Through Planning
If your child refuses to eat what is served and demands their own preferred food – they are giving you their input on meal choices, which is okay. But when the meal is on the table is not the appropriate time to influence the meal plan. Stick with the meal plan and do not make alterations or offer substitutions.

Instead, include your child in planning the family menu so they can pick days everyone eats their choices. You are showing them that you will be okay eating their grilled-cheese sandwich dinner and in return they will have to live through eating your meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Everyone has some give and take in the family.

About Alyson

Alyson has been blogging parenting advice for over 15 years. She has been a panelist at BlogWest, Blissdom, #140NYC and more. Her content appears on sites across Canada and the US, but you can read all her own blog posts right here.

More about Alyson

8 Responses to “Panicked Over Picky Eaters”

  1. Reema

    One issue I’m facing with my 11year & 7 year old boys is that they don’t like visible veggies in their meals. How do I make them like vegetables! They know the health benefits but still have this notion about veggies being yucky. Another thing is that if they choose not to eat the cooked meal then they able to locate some cookies & snack somehow despite hiding them. How do I tackle this ? It’s impossible to hide all the things all the time.
    Please help me . I was recommended your website by a friend & I’m really impressed !

  2. Alyson Schafer

    Hi Reema, I suggest you lighten up a bit about the veggies. You can get many of the same vit and min via fruit sources or the veggie fruit juices or supplements. Add blended veggies into your sauces and other creative ideas. But as for sneaking – if they get down from the table they are done. Don’t comment on what they have or have not eaten. If they help themselves to food you can decide to not buy treats ( if they are still hungry they’ll have to reach for other healthy food instead). OR If they are not interested in eating what you have prepared, suggest they look after feeding themselves ( which is essentially what they are doing when they come check what you have made and then help themselves to the food in cupboard instead). That means – you only have to cook dinner for yourself and they can go through the cupboards to fend for themselves and get their own dinner. After a week they will tire of the freedom they have and will come to miss your meals and will choose to go back to eating your meals – even if that means they include veggies.

    The big trick w/ veggies is exposure with out pressure. Lots of variety ( cooked / frozen / hot / cold / raw / steamed / sauteed ) and small servings when they are most apt to eat them. In my house that was after school snacks.

    Hope this helps. Glad you found the site and that is helpful.


  3. Karen

    My 9 1/2 year old son seems to have a good appetite throughout the day. He’s just not hungry in the morning. He seems to get hungry around 10 and 11. This is a problem when he goes to school. I try to buy things he might like but when I ask him, he says he’s not hungry yet. Also, in the evenings for snack, he complains he’s hungry but everything I offer him, he doesn’t want. Sometimes I feel he’s not getting enough to eat. This is very frustrating.

  4. sadeddy

    re: Not Eating Is A Choice – My picky eater 8 year old becomes very ‘difficult’ when he does not eat, becoming argumentative, angry, irrational, over-emotional and all sorts of other things. He often does not even realise this, and it took us a few years to work it out ourselves. This causes my wife to feed him anything he wants rather than go without food, which encourages his picky eating. Any advice on how to deal with this?

    • alyson

      While I understand that many people who are tired or hungry are more likely to act grouchy, we have to appreciate that we still have a choice about how we treat other people. Many people claim to be “bad morning people” to their family, but if someone comes to the door they put on their happy face. Same goes for kids. If they are being “difficult” they should be asked to go be somewhere else until they can be more social. Mood is mood – food is food. Don’t indulge them with their picky eating choices to push a mood away or else you are inadvertently training them that their are benefits in being crabby!!

  5. Stuart

    What about children on the autism spectrum or with aspergers? We have one of each in our family and our menu is very limited.

  6. Naomi

    Hi Alyson! I love your website and have read two of your books…. very helpful indeed. I have a 6 year old who is a picky eater (and a 3 year old who isn’t). I make a healthy meal every night, but at least 80% of the time (or maybe more) my older son will just say “yuck, I’m not eating that!” (and sometimes the younger one will copy him and not eat either!). I tell him I’m not making him anything else, and just eat the parts he likes. If he’s not very hungry, he’ll just leave the table without eating. But if he is hungry, he’ll go to the fridge and make himself something else! Right while the rest of us are eating dinner! Usually bread with peanut butter. Should I allow this? Or try to stop him? Currently, I try to stop him but I can only stand in front of the fridge for so long and eventually he’ll just get something else! I don’t know how to make him respect the food I made…or should I even try!? Thanks in advance! Naomi

  7. appetito

    hi, my 2 year old boy is picky eater for 6 months now. I researched anorexia remedies on the internet but it didn’t work either. Is there any medicine or syrup that can cure this condition?


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