How to Handle a Picky Eater: Where to Start When You Already Feel Stuck

In all of the areas of parenting that we are able to prepare ourselves pre-kids, one that we often find ourselves at a loss about is how to handle picky eating.

We hear, read, and see so much out there about introducing solids and how to transition our children to table food. The challenges often become most apparent however when our child goes from “eating everything” (often in the first year or two) to soon being apprehensive towards even old favorites. This can make us feel unsure about what the best approach is moving  forward.  

Unfortunately, trying to “just get by” with picky eating is rarely an effective approach. Feeding your child should not be a fight, just as seeking help doesn’t need to be a shame game over whatever led you to this place of feeling defeated. That’s why this post will provide you with small action steps to substitute your old ways with new approaches, proven to help raise up healthier eaters and ultimately, adults.

First, make a list with the following reflections:

  1. Identify what your current approach to feeding is. Ask yourself, who determines what food is offered? Who determines when meals and snacks are served? Who determines where food is eaten? Who determines how many bites your child eats before they may be considered “all done?” How often do you use pressure tactics like rewards, bribing, or punishment to get your child to eat a specified amount? Use these questions to begin brainstorming a list of what your current feeding style is.
  2. Ask yourself, “What is your goal is in wanting your child to eat what is offered?” Fuel, nourishment, following directions, and avoiding food waste are all valid reasons for wanting our children to eat what is offered. Go beyond the short-term goals though in answering this question. Ask yourself what kind of eater you want to raise? How do you envision meal times going in your family one, five, or ten years from now? What kind of relationship do you want your child to have with food by the time they are an adult? By identifying the big picture, you can begin to put the pavers in place to get there with less preoccupation on the day to day objectives.
  3. Honestly list out your answers to, “What are your biggest frustrations in feeding your child?” This will help you to identify your biggest pain points in feeding your unique picky eater. These frustrations are all common among families with young kids and yet specific to each family’s situation, so address what most makes you tick. These are helpful places to start when you begin to address what about your family’s approach to feeding needs to change first.

Next, open yourself up to a potentially different approach to feeding.

  1. Study the Division of Responsibility in Feeding. If you have never heard about the Division of Responsibility in Feeding by Registered Dietitian and Feeding Expert Ellyn Satter, learn more about it. Review how it is used at different ages and feeding stages and to establish a family’s feeding approach. Acknowledge how outcomes, such as these, are similar to those you wish for your child.
  2. Recognize the differences in your current approach and this approach. Review your initial list from above. Compare and contrast how you currently approach feeding your family versus the best practices shared by the Division of Responsibility. If you know your approach to feeding has been ineffective, consider how you can adopt a more effective approach from here forward.
  3. Begin to apply the Division of Responsibility in Feeding. With a broadened understanding of what the Division of Responsibility is, gradually begin working at your role as the parent. As you do, empower your child to learn to assume theirs.

Remember:

  • The parent’s role is to be responsible for what the child is fed, when the child is fed, and where the child is fed.
  • The child’s role is to be responsible for if/whether they eat and how much they eat from what is offered

Lastly, commit to the Division of Responsibility.

  1. Start with targeting one key area. Often times, this will be where you identify your current approach conflicts the most with what the Division of Responsibility advises. It may be you need to start establishing a meal and snack routine for when food is offered. You may need to stop short order cooking and become more intentional about planning family meals where there is always a preferred food available. You might need to set the boundary that tablets, toys, the TV being on, and other distractions are no longer welcome at the table. Or maybe starting to serve meals family style will help you relinquish control over how much food your child chooses to put on their plate. Whatever seems to fit your family’s current situation the best, start there.
  2. Establish trust and control. As you begin to own your parental responsibilities of what, when, and where food is offered, there are two key values that need to be reinstated in order for your child to learn how to do their role. Your child needs to know that you trust them to be capable of listening to their own intrinsic cues for hunger and fullness so that they they control if/whether and how much they eat without your input or objections. Trust that your trying to control how much he or she eats will only backfire. Instead, once you have done your role, empower them to do theirs.
  3. Keep practicing. It takes time, practice, and patience for these feeding habits to be thoroughly established in a family, especially when picky eating has persisted for awhile. Not every meal nor every day will be a perfect execution of this approach, but with practice it can become more intuitive and effective.

As needed, get support

If you are unsure your attempts to adopt the Division of Responsibility in Feeding are working and/or effective, there are a variety of ways to get judgement-free advice and insight.

  1. Seek out expert-advice on the subject. Many pediatric dietitians are trained in the Division of Responsibility and offer a variety of resources to help educate parents and empower families in adopting this approach. Seek one out locally or connect with one virtually.
  2. Join like-minded feeding support groups. The Ellyn Satter Institute offers a robust resource for finding out more information on how to best implement the Division of Responsibility in a variety of applications that come up. Many pediatric dietitians will also offer private Facebook groups to their clients and/or followers.
  3. Consider keeping a notebook of “small wins.” This is a great tool to encourage you of meals, days, and seasons when you saw active progress with this approach, what contributed to that progress, and how to stay the course to see continued wins with feeding your family.

Whatever you do, resist the temptation to resort to old, unproductive approaches once you have identified they are ineffective. Instead, begin to educate yourself, explore as a family, and encourage your child about the Division of Responsibility in feeding. In doing so, both you and your child can experience a lifetime of benefits that will make your greatest feeding frustrations gradually fade away.

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Contributor
Ashley Smith is a pediatric dietitian and mom to two apprehensive eaters (ages 4 and 2). Her mission is to bring other families less meal time stress and more feeding success. Ashley does this each week through sharing simple approaches to meal planning and effective strategies for raising healthy eaters. Follow her on Instagram
@veggiesandvirtue or her blog, www.veggiesandvirtue.com.

 


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