Picky eaters often frustrate their parents because parents worry the child is not getting the proper nutrition. This concern is not unfounded. A lack of certain nutrients may cause a disruption in child development or set an ongoing pattern of poor eating habits.
Before beginning a course of behavioral adjustments to change the habits of the picky eater, parents should consider consulting with a physician to rule out physiological reasons for picky eating. Such conditions as Celiac disease, hypothyroidism or even sore gums may be influencing how the child feels about food.
If no underlying medical cause exists, concerned parents can implement strategies that could encourage their picky eater to add more healthy foods to his culinary repertoire.
Hide the junk
Remove junk food from the pantry. It needn’t be thrown away, but should be placed in cabinetry to which the child doesn’t have access. This may include candy, cookies, potato chips and other sugary or salty snack foods. If the picky eater isn’t able to nibble on these foods, he is more likely to be hungry when meals are served.
Lighten up on the lectures
Picky eaters tend to push parental buttons, causing parents to spend meal times lecturing the child on how some children would be grateful to have that food, how he won’t grow up to be big and strong, or how there’ll be no television before bed if he doesn’t eat his dinner.
Picky eaters tend to become more obstinate with each lecture. If the child pushes his food around, parents should ignore it. If he whines, parents can give him permission not to eat. For example, a parent may respond with “It’s okay if you’re not hungry. Just leave it on your plate. So what did you do at school today?” This strategy gives the child a sense of control over his own body and a sense of what it is to make a choice.
Offer the healthy alternative
When the picky eater does forego the nutritious meal prepared for him, he is likely to ask for a favorite food later. This may be a food the parent feels is too fatty or lacks nutritional value. Parents can respond by saying that food isn’t available, and offering the child healthy alternatives such as a sandwich on whole grain bread, apple slices and sugar free peanut butter, or other similar foods. If the child resists, the parent puts the choice back on the child by replying, “It’s up to you. That’s what’s here.”
Hold the line
The strategy is to allow the child to begin making the connection between his choices to avoid healthy foods and not having junk foods or less nutritious foods available to him. He can choose not to eat, but he does not have the choice to substitute junk food for healthy foods. Parents need to maintain the strategy, resisting the urge to bribe, cajole, lecture or punish the child in the hopes of getting him to eat more healthily.
As the child begins reaching for grapes instead of whining for cookies, or nibbling vegetables he encounters on his dinner plate, parents should also resist the urge to applaud or celebrate the act. If the act of eating well is simply expected, the picky eater will grow into that expectation.