The Picky Eater

All young children are more-or-less picky about food. What they eat one day, they don't the next. They eat a lot one day, little the next. They don't eat some of everything that is on the table, but eat only one or two foods and ignore the rest. They warm up slowly to unfamiliar foods and may have to see, watch you eat, touch or taste a food (they put it in and take it out again) 15 or 20 (or even more) times before they learn to like it. then they eat it sometimes and not others. If you maintain a division of responsibility in feeding, over time, even a cautious and slow-to-warm-up child will become less erratic about eating and less skeptical of unfamiliar food.

However, your child has gone past ordinary picky eating if she gets upset when she sees unfamiliar food, only, ever, eats her few (and shrinking list of) favorite foods, and worries she will be unable to eat away from home. You can’t get your child to eat, but you can help her resolve her negative feelings about eating. You can reassure her she doesn’t have to eat. That will allow her to develop positive attitudes about eating and behave nicely at mealtime so she can learn. After that, she will ever-so-gradually push herself along to learn to eat a greater variety of food.

Do a good job with feeding. Have regular meals and structured snacks so your child can be hungry but not starved at mealtime. Have family meals, and make those meals a pleasure and a privilege, not a chore. To keep meals positive, don’t pressure her in any way to eat.

  • Teach her to say “no, thank you" rather than "YUK." Have her leave the table if she behaves badly.
  • Be family friendly with meals. Pair unfamiliar with familiar food, not-yet-liked with liked foods. Don't make special food for her.
  • Be sure to put one or two foods on the menu that she ordinarily eats. Bread and milk would work.
  • Let her pick and choose from what you put on the table, even if she eats five slices of bread and nothing else.
  • Teach her to use her napkin to get food back out of her mouth when she discovers she doesn't want to swallow. (Teach yourself this trick, as well. It will make you braver about trying new food!)

Avoid feeding errors.

  • Failing to have structured meals and snacks and/or letting her eat or drink (except for water) whenever she wants to between times.
  • Talking about your child’s food likes and dislikes.
  • Limiting the menu to food your child readily accepts.
  • Putting pressure in any way on her eating.

For more about helping children learn to do well with eating (and for research backing up this advice), see Ellyn Satter's Child of Mine: Feeding With Love and Good Sense, Bull Publishing, 2000. Also see www.EllynSatterInstitute.org/store to purchase books and to review comprehensive educational materials that teach stage-related feeding and solve feeding problems.

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