As a play therapist in Sioux Falls, SD, it is not uncommon for me to see children whose only issue or behavior is picky eating. It can be very frustrating for parents and daycare providers to deal with picky eating, because these adults have to find a way to balance the child’s nutrition while also trying to teach age appropriate behaviors.
Picky eaters come in all shapes and sizes, and avoid foods in every food category. However, there are basically three types of picky eaters: the kid who actually doesn’t like the food, the kid who has a sensory aversion and the kid who uses food for power and control.
In this series, we’ll take a look at these three different types of picky eaters and discuss the ways to respond and react to these picky eaters in order to help them to improve their eating habits in a healthy and appropriate manner.
The Kid Who Doesn’t Like the Food
The first type of picky eater is one who simply doesn’t like the foods served to him. This kid typically lives in a family where parents are very strict about food. They place foods on the table, make a demand that the child eat what’s served or go hungry and then wait for the child to make a decision.
With this type of child, the parents are trying to teach the child the lesson that adults are in charge and children can’t always have a say in the things that happen to them.
These parents have good intentions of lessons that need to be learned. While it’s important that parents set expectations for behaviors, it’s also important that parents recognize the difference between teaching children to comply with adult directions and forcing children to do things that are truly terrible experiences for them.
A child’s tastes are different than an adult’s—and everyone’s taste buds are different in general—so typically children and their parents like different things. But, when planning meals, adults tend to make meals that they like themselves, and demand that kids eat what’s given to them and not throw a fit.
Now I can tell you what I would do if I were told that tonight, my supper options included salmon with a side of carrots, or go hungry…I’d choose to go hungry. Dealing with the pain in my stomach, at least for tonight, would be more bearable to me than to eat either of those foods, because I don’t like them.
As an adult, I have the ability to avoid the foods I don’t like. I don’t order them at a restaurant, and I don’t make them for supper. But kids aren’t always allowed this freedom, even though they should be.
To get this kind of picky eater to start eating what you serve, simply serve some things each meal that you know your child likes. If your child refuses broccoli but devours peas, then serve peas for supper a couple of nights per week.
Allow your child to have a say in at least one part of the meal by giving him a choice. For example, when preparing supper, you can say, “We’re having spaghetti for supper tonight. Do you think we should have applesauce or peaches with that?” or “What kind of vegetable should we have with our spaghetti tonight? We have corn, broccoli, cauliflower or peas and carrots?”
When you give him a choice, you’re letting him know that you do care about what he likes and dislikes and that you are going to try to make some accommodations, just like you do for yourself. However, letting your child be in charge of the entire meal plan isn’t appropriate. Parents are correct in that they need to teach their kids that there is a balance, that adults do sometimes have to make decisions for kids.
What I like to do is sometimes serve things that I know the kids like, while also choosing to serve things every once in a while that I know the kids don’t like or haven’t tried in a while and need to explore their tastes.
When I ran daycare in my house, the rule was that everyone had to take one bite and if we absolutely hated it, we could spit it out. We did this so that the kids were allowed to try new foods to learn what they liked and didn’t like, but it also created a safety net that allowed the kids to show me if they didn’t like the food.
Typically, I would serve that food three different times in a few weeks’ time span at different meals and prepared in different ways just to make sure that the reason the food was spit out was because of a dislike for the food, and not due to a behavior or perception about that food.
The child who avoids foods because he doesn’t like certain foods may simply need the adults in his life to make some adjustments and give him some choices in order to change his picky eating habits. This type of picky eater is related to his opinion—his likes and dislikes—just like your eating habits are related to your own opinions.
But not all picky eating is related to a child’s opinions, likes and dislikes. Some picky eating is related to biological problems or a desire for control. In the next few weeks, we’ll take a look at these other causes for picky eating and what you can do to take the battle out of meal times.