Expert Tips on Feeding Picky Eaters

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Expert Tips on Feeding Picky Eaters
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Expert Tips on Feeding Picky Eaters

Feeding young children is no small feat, especially if they go through a phase where they’ll eat nothing but macaroni and cheese. Children can be notoriously picky, and trying to introduce toddlers to new foods can feel like a Herculean task. It may feel like power struggles over food are inevitable. 

But handling food with young children doesn’t have to be a battle. We sat down with Heidi Schauster, nutrition therapist, to get some expert tips for parents on how to feed picky eaters. 

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What might cause a child to be a picky eater? 

It’s not uncommon for young children to go through phases where they’re extra sensitive or selective when it comes to what food they choose to eat, especially when introducing new things. 

“Often, the child is just finding a texture or a taste foreign and kind of unpleasant,” Schauster says. “And they’re needing more exposure and time to accept it.” 

Other times, kids might get caught in what Schauster calls “food jags,” where they’ll typically eat the same foods prepared the same way for every meal. For example, a child might go through a phase where they only eat white foods or eat macaroni and cheese for every meal. 

There can be many root causes for a food jag. In many cases, kids might use food refusal as a way to exert their newfound independence, especially if parents are insistent.

“If they have a sense that their parent really wants them or eat something or really doesn’t want them to eat something,” Schauster says. “They may play with that, if they’re tuned into that.”

That’s why Schauster says the key is to be as neutral as possible about food until your child grows out of it. 

“The key is to not put too much emotion into a food jag or food refusal, so that it doesn’t take on a life of its town because of a power struggle,” Schauster says. 

How can parents go about feeding a picky eater? 

Feeding a picky eater can be difficult for parents to navigate, especially when going through a food jag. While it can be stressful, Schauster says the key to feeding a picky eater is to relax. 

“Doing a dance or using coercive techniques around food or having a significant response around food refusal could encourage even more reluctant eating,” Schauster says. 

But taking a neutral approach to food doesn’t mean putting a stop to introducing new food to kids. Studies have shown that toddlers may actually need to try a food 12 to 30 times before they accept it into their palette. 

“Parents shouldn’t push, but they also shouldn’t give up on new or initially rejected foods,” Schauster says. “Continue to offer the food here and there.” 

And even though there’s pressure as a caretaker to find a dinner that fits everyone’s tastes, don’t become a short order cook that makes different meals for everyone. 

“It’s really important for kids to grow up to be flexible around food,” Schauster says. 

Schauster says having a meal schedule, where everyone in the family has a day where they get to pick what’s for dinner, can be “a game changer” for families with picky eaters. 

“Kids tend not to refuse the meals that they don’t like as much because they know that their meal is coming up soon,” Schauster says. “And that way, kids are getting more involved in food planning, too.” 

How can parents encourage their kids to try new foods without making food an issue? 

Parents can encourage their kids to try new foods by modeling the behavior themselves. 

“Even though their kids might not want to be doing what their parents are doing at times, they are watching,” Schauster says. “And so if parents are modeling variety, that’s super helpful.” 

Serving a variety of foods at home is helpful, even if the kids aren’t ready to eat them yet. They’ll be getting exposed to things like new smells and new ways for food to look. 

In general, the trick is “being persistent about bringing new foods out but being nonchalant about whether or not they eat,” Schauster says. 

Schauster also cites dietician Ellyn Satter’s idea of division of responsibility, wherein parents are responsible for making varied, healthy foods available and kids are responsible for eating it. 

Keeping these responsibilities separate can help avoid power struggles around food. 

“We have to be careful as parents that we’re not going over into their lane and insisting that they eat something or not eat something,” Schauster says. “We just make it available.” 

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