The picky eater is a child who develops a small repertoire of food that she eats and she manipulates her parents and caregivers into providing only those foods. This does not make her a “bad” child. She’s just been trained by us adults not to explore foods and try different things. There are certainly some children who have a true developmental problem called oral aversion – this is not the typical picky eater.
During the toddler years, it is normal for children to all of the sudden say “no” to foods that they typically would eat. This is all part of normal development for this age group – children try to have some control over their environment. Therefore, many toddlers say “no” and throw temper tantrums when not getting their way. When a child refuses the food, many times parents just stop offering it to them and say “He doesn’t like green beans anymore” when actually the child is just trying to exert some independence and control. If a caregiver offered the green beans again and again, the child would eventually start eating them again. However, if we aren’t persistent and don’t keep trying, the food will not be familiar any longer and once the child becomes more vocal he’ll many times mimic what Mom and Dad have always said “I don’t like green beans”. Many times this is how the picky eater develops. It can get to the point where some kids will refuse to eat everything but chicken nuggets, french fries, and corn. When someone offers something else, the child throws a fit, and the adult presents him with chicken nuggets, fries, and corn – reinforcing the unhealthy behavior – and the child eats and there is peace in the home!
If your child is the picky eater and has gotten you trained to only offer what she demands to eat – then what you need to do is pretty clear, but will require persistence and teamwork from all your child’s caregivers and family members. The first thing to know is – there’s no one to blame at this point. Don’t get hung up on guilt. Just accept that your child has developed this pickiness and you will help her un-develop it! Second, know that your healthy child will not go hungry! As long as you follow the steps below, your child will always have something that he’s used to eating for each meal. Lastly, know that you are doing the right thing. If you continue with your current ways, your child will grow up to be very unhealthy and will not reach his full potential unless you choose to offer him the right “fuel” to work with. If you put bad gas in a gas tank, the engine will not run well. Your child’s body is the same as that engine! When the food you’re providing him is limited and not the appropriate variety that his body needs, his brain and the rest of his body will malfunction (inattention, lack of energy, hyperactivity, obesity, failure to thrive — failure to gain weight or failure of the brain to develop as expected, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, behavior problems, low self esteem). So, make the decision today to give your child the appropriate, healthy fuel.
One Bite Rule for the Picky Eater
Your job as a parent is to provide balanced, nutritious meals. It’s your child’s job to eat what her body needs.
- Do not force your child to clear the plate.
- I repeat — Do not force your child to clear the plate.
- Do not use food for punishment or for a reward for good behavior or achievement.
- Do not reserve dessert only if the plate is cleared or vegetables are eaten.
If you choose to serve dessert, everyone gets a serving – no food should be used as a reward or punishment.
Follow the one bite rule. Serve the same meal to all at the table. Everyone (even Dad who may not like peas either!) must try one bite of everything on their plate. If your child doesn’t like it, she can say “I don’t like this – I don’t want any more” and she doesn’t have to eat the rest. Keep offering the foods over and over again. Try fixing peas several different ways (raw in a salad, mixed into a tuna casserole, as a snack of wasabi peas). Eventually your child (or Dad) may find that she likes them a certain way. If your child does not eat what is served, do not go get anything else from the kitchen. Your child will not starve! But he will learn that if he doesn’t eat what’s on the plate, he won’t get anything else. This will encourage a hungry child to try that one bite.
The picky eater typically is developed over time. It’s a habit of preferences — likes & dislikes. Using the tips above can help you “undo” the picky eater habit.