Growing a Picky Eater to Healthy Eater: Avoiding the Power Struggle to Enjoying Sharing a Meal Together
Many families know the experience of dealing with a picky eater – and those that have know all too well the intense family fights that can break out over demands to eat three pieces of broccoli or at least TRY that pork roast dad has been cooking all day otherwise you can’t leave the table or watch TV until you have done so.
Indeed, many young people struggle with some degree of food avoidance – especially in early childhood. Very extreme versions of these behaviors can actually result in a diagnosis of an eating disorder called ARFID (Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder). While most children do not reach the level of ARFID criterion, families often dread meal times due to the amount of energy and time spent arguing over which foods or how much food is eaten making what is hoped to be quality family time together into a battleground. At the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School (O-School), we often deal with this issue on a more acute level, as a number of our students struggle with food avoidance as a symptom or co-occurring issue of their mental health challenges. For example, some of our students’ underlying issues related to social anxiety and sensory integration can result in a propensity for food avoidance. They don’t like how a food looks, smells, tastes, or the texture of it once it is in their mouth. Some do like eating in front of or with other people, they prefer to be alone to eat and not have to get along with others as they socialize together sharing a meal. From the experience at the O-School food and meal avoidance occurs in all types of family and for both neurotypical and neuroatypical children as well.
Of course, as we all know from personal experience with picky eaters, the vast majority of young people will outgrow this frustrating habit. But, we also know that every day in a power struggle with a picky eater is one day too many! So, we’ve come up with some guidance for parents who are currently engaged in the dreaded picky eater power struggle!
Why are kids avoidant/picky eaters?
Young people usually struggle with food avoidance for one of two reasons.
- Social Anxiety (and the Social Dynamics of Eating/Meals)
For young people, food is almost always associated with having a meal with a group of people – an act that is inherently social. Eating a meal with a group requires coming together, taking turns, being in close physical proximity, and staying focused (no video games at the table!). Moreover, it often requires maintaining conversation – which can be intimidating for some young people.
Additionally, during these meals, the complexities of family dynamics (with siblings and parents) can be transferred onto the experience of eating. Especially for younger children, meals can mean that someone is exerting power/control upon you (eat your vegetables, no TV unless you finish your meal…) and, again, this interpersonal intensity can be transferred onto the experience of eating – which, oftentimes, results in a power struggle around food.
- Sensory Integration and Food
Food, in its nature, has different textures, odors, temperatures, and appearances. For many adults, these are actually some of the joys of eating! But for young people, these factors can overwhelm the senses in ways that are uncomfortable or overwhelming. Kids may complain that food is “too crunchy” or “too mushy” – describing the actual sensory experience of eating. At the O-School, we often see this in our students on the autism spectrum, but anyone with sensory sensitivities can experience this relationship with food.
Young kids (or those dealing with food avoidance) will often request foods with singular flavors and textures – and something that is monochromatic – think fettuccini alfredo! Additionally, kids will often ask for the same food every day – something they know they will like and won’t surprise them.
How do we resolve these issues and make meals a better experience for all?
The goal is to make meals less about exerting parental will – and put the focus back on getting the nourishment everyone needs and having a positive social experience. Now, this does not mean placating or appeasing a picky eater but, rather, working – step by step – to creating a more positive association with trying new foods and expanding one’s palate.
- Work to make meals pleasant and positive social interactions. Avoid power struggles and fights whenever possible. Don’t establish overly rigid rules about what a child “must eat.”
- Plan for conversations that are enjoyable, light mood, and less pressured. Talk about things everyone can join in on and feel good about. Make dinner conversation more about enjoying each other’s company rather than “status updates” on how things are going or what accomplishments have or have not been achieved.
- Slow everyone’s schedule down, the best you can, and have a fairly consistent and predictable mealtime. Expect everyone to join the meal who is home and avoid becoming the local all-night diner that cooks whatever is requested at any time day or night.
- Encourage openness to try different foods. When you are thinking of new foods to incorporate, think about things like texture, temperature, color, and sensation. What might the child enjoy? Try different approaches – don’t give up if one avenue doesn’t work!
- Remember that, when introducing new experiences, foods with lots of spices (or a complex layering of spices) may not be the best bet. Introduce kids to spices one by one. Start slow! Make it a learning experience – try different flavors, include the child in the shopping and cooking processes! The goal is to try new things – and to be open. Help kids investigate what they do/do not like – and what they may/may not like. Don’t assume!
- Use a “bridge food” if you need it. If a child hates broccoli but loves ranch dressing – could you get him to eat some broccoli dipped in ranch?? That’s a good start! Remember, acquired tastes have to be acquired – it can take time. Pairing new foods with a favorite food can be a great bridge to trying new things, which the child can then learn to enjoy without the crutch.
- It’s ok to have some incentive-based expectations (for example, you need to eat 2-3 bites of vegetables to get your favorite/special dessert) – but it should never be about punishment or forcing a child to eat something. Avoid the power struggle!
- Role model what you want to see! Show the picky eater that everyone else in the family can sit down and have a pleasant meal, enjoying a variety of foods and a nice conversation. Involve older siblings! Preparation is key! Come to the meal ready to talk about something that can appeal to everyone – so each family member feels included and engaged.
- Have reasonable goals! Make your mealtime a length that can be successful – even if that’s just 15 minutes. Better to have an enjoyable short meal as a family than an excruciatingly long one! Remember, you can always improve upon your successes – but don’t be surprised when a picky eater doesn’t want to sit at the table while the rest of the family eats salmon and discusses politics for two hours.
And, finally, be patient.
Most kids will grow out of this. It won’t change overnight, but after a few months of these interventions, you should show notable improvement. Keep encouraging picky eaters – “Remember, you tried that new food on Saturday and ended up liking it!” If they’re doing well at expanding their food repertoire, maybe reward them with delivery from their favorite restaurant over the weekend. Keep them engaged in the process, reminding them of the joys of food and being an open-minded eater, and how these traits can enrich one’s life.
Good luck avoiding the pick eater power struggle! We know you can do it!
Author Pete Myers currently serves as the Clinical Director for the O-School and the Director of the Broke Whitted Center (BWC). To learn more about the O-School’s residential and day programs, please visit our website. If you have a child or loved one who you believe may benefit from the O-School’s or BWC’s services, please visit our contact page here or call our Director of Admissions, Kristin Friesen, at 773-420-2891.