Dear fellow parent:
So, you have a child that consistently refuses to eat the food you prepare for your family. You’ve probably heard lots of advice and tried it all, hoping to sway your picky eater over to the more adventurous side and failed.
You are not alone.
You’ve also likely received some pretty harsh judgment and ridicule from finger pointers, blaming you for being an overindulgent parent who only enables your child’s picky eating. These never-had-to-deal-with-it-myself types have all the answers. Force him to eat it. Hunger will fix it. Let him starve, they say, after all, this isn’t a restaurant. You’re spoiling your child. It’s all your fault.
I’ve heard it too. Understand that none of the people behind those pointed fingers have a child like yours and mine. None of them are able to explain how I fed twins the same food from the same spoon and ended up with a daughter who eats everything and a son who eats barely anything. This is an equal system – I spoil no one or I spoil everyone. So, tell me what I did again?
It is not your fault, and you are not alone.
Experts have opinions too. It’s a power struggle, the food is too bland, too spicy, too yadda yadda yadda. Children need to see food 10-20 times before they’ll try it. Be sneaky, be firm, only offer vegetables at snacks. The experts are providing advice for typical picky eating, a normal part of child development. Ignore it. They’re not talking about your kid, or mine either for that matter.
The finger pointers and the experts don’t yet understand that kids like yours and mine would rather be hungry than face what’s on their plate. They’ve never met a child who is so frightened of eating, that they resist even sitting at the table, or entering a room that contains food. The expert advice for picky eating is not intended for the child who gags and vomits on gentle textures, or the smell of food. Our children are different. Our children are not picky eaters.
And we are so very not alone.
There is plenty of advice for picky eating available from books and all over the Internet. What is lacking is advice for the selective and resistant eaters. These are children like yours and mine who don’t respond to picky eating advice. Picky eating is often about a power struggle. Selective and resistant eating is a completely different issue. Toddlers grow out of the picky eating stage. Resistant eaters grow up to become adults with the same limited diet. The Picky Eating Adults support forum has over 2,000 members. The Duke Study has received over 18,000 responses to their survey to study selective eating in adults and children.
Fellow parent, you and I are not alone. In fact, we are one of many.
How can I help my Resistant Eater?
There are several reasons for selective or resistant eating. Expanding your child’s list of acceptable and edible foods means isolating the cause. In the meantime, these are suggestions from selective eating adults and parents to help your resistant eating child feel more comfortable around food.
Resist the temptation to hide food your resistant eater doesn’t like in food they do eat. You are dealing with anxiety and discovering that they’ve been tricked only erodes their trust in you. Trust. Is. Everything! You’ll make no progress without it. Involve your resistant eater in the preparation of their food. My son has an aversion to cheese. We have different names for cheese, but he’ll willingly add cottage cheese to his smoothies, or shredded mozzarella on his pizza. He knows what it is, he’s just not comfortable eating “cheese”. I let him come up with alternate names, like smoothie pudding and nothing pizza. Never try to tell your resistant eater it’s something else, or try to add ingredients when he’s not looking. If he doesn’t want the blueberries added to his smoothie, respect his wishes. Getting caught does more damage than not eating blueberries ever will.
Be a Food Scientist
Take the focus off eating and discover what your selective eater likes and dislikes about food. Is it the smell? The texture? The temperature? Does it make their teeth or belly hurt? Is it difficult to swallow? What do they think will happen if they try to eat it?
Always Provide A Way Out
Always make sure there is at least one item your child likes to eat on the table and don’t overwhelm him with more than one new thing at a time. Give your resistant eater permission to interact with the new food by smelling or touching it. If that’s too much for him, even looking at it is just fine. Let him know he is not expected to eat it unless he wants to and if he does make a brave attempt, place a bowl or a napkin nearby where he can spit it out.
Give them options
Perhaps the carrots are easier to accept raw instead of cooked. Offer options for dipping – peanut butter, chocolate, jam, and applesauce may be more selective eater friendly than ketchup. Food might seem less threatening in pureed form instead of chopped. Veggies and fruit added to a smoothie or frozen in a popsicle may seem less offensive than a small, aromatic pile on a plate.
Keep it Small
Your little resistant eater has a little stomach to match. Try serving 4-6 small meals instead of 3 squares. A snack goes a lot further than nothing at all. Little bites are also easier to keep track of and manipulate in a little mouth. Older resistant eaters tend to find smaller portions less overwhelming and more likely to be explored with other senses.
At a restaurant, ask if your selective eater’s food could be prepared to his specific liking. Could his pizza not have any toppings? Could the french fries that come with your meal be served on a separate plate? At a friend’s house, ask if the host will have a safe food available (rolls, fries, etc..) and if not, offer to bring plenty for your selective eater plus enough to share. Never assume that food your child can eat will be available outside your home. It helps to avoid the hunger fueled, anxiety induced meltdown that follows when something unexpected arrives or nothing edible is available.
Respect Their Space
How much do you like being watched while you eat? Food presents its own unique brand of anxiety. Don’t add to it by turning your selective eater into the meal’s main attraction.
Do you get applause for every bite you chew and swallow? Beam proudly in silence and save your words of encouragement for after the meal.
Learning to like food takes time. Let your resistant eater take all the time they need to get acquainted with their food, and I can guarantee it will be a lot more than the 10-20 exposures that a picky eater needs. Meals are a time to reconnect with family and relax. Relaxing is also contagious. The less you let food be an issue at the table, the more likely your selective eater is going to get curious.
Let your selective eater turn the food into a toy. Carrot sticks can be lip balm, or a toothbrush; oranges, apples and watermelon are funny smiles; peas, corn and pasta can be oral ammunition to aim at a target. Oh, yeah, it’s gonna be messy, however, the food probably wasn’t going to be eaten anyway. Peas spat at a target is (shhh… in his mouth!) That’s a lot closer to being eaten than it would have been with proper table manners. I highly recommend a raincoat or a paint smock.
This doesn’t mean it’s possible to reform your selective eater into an adventurous foodie with some calming table zen or fun and games, but in an enjoyable environment and without pressure, they just might pick up something new and smell it, poke it, lick it or (cue the angels singing) eat it. Maybe, just maybe.
As much as picking up a new food is a wonderful moment, successful eating isn’t about what foods get tried or eaten. Success with eating grows out of a positive attitude toward food. Accepting your resistant eater for what he can eat now is much easier on everyone that trying to get him to eat food he isn’t ready for yet.
Now that you’ve met another parent of a resistant eater, I would like to welcome you into the club with these two encouraging bits of advice:
1. Never accept judgement on your parenting ability based solely on the appetites of others, and
2. You are not alone.