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Question: My son is six years old. He’s always been a picky eater, but now it’s affecting his growth. He never wants to eat what we’re eating and he won’t eat the “kid food” his brother eats. Sometimes he takes only a few bites at each meal. I’m so worried about him. I feel like I’m watching him starve. What do I do to get him to eat more?
Answer: Parents of extreme picky eaters know this struggle well. Some kids are born hungry; they will indiscriminately gobble up whatever food you put in front of them. For other kids, it’s not so easy. Erratic food jags aside, some children experience persistent low appetite, sensory impairment, and physical discomfort with eating, to the extent that growth and development may suffer. As parents, we know that our job is to nurture children and help them grow. But when our kids won’t eat – day after day, meal after meal – feelings of powerlessness and failure creep in. Mealtimes can turn into a battle of wills, with parents often on the losing end.
Here are some things to know if your child is beyond a picky eater:
- Recognize the issue: Kids develop unhealthy relationships with food for a number of reasons. Try to identify what’s going on with your child to determine next steps and solutions. Parents should look for signs of sensory processing disorder (extreme sensitivity to certain tastes, textures, or colors), behavioral resistance (refusing to eat in order to gain control or command attention), or motor dysfunction (physical difficulty with chewing or swallowing). These issues typically require help from an expert, such as an occupational therapist, in order to be resolved. Talk to your pediatrician if this is the case with your child.
- Offer choices without forcing food: Children love to have a sense of power, and food intake is one of the few things they can really control. Parents know that children can’t be forced to eat and doing so can lead to the unhealthy mealtime dynamics we’re trying to avoid. Choices, on the other hand, empower kids by supporting their natural desire to make decisions for themselves. Parents should be mindful of keeping choices within their own acceptable limits. For instance, children can decide if they want one meatball or two and if they’d prefer sauce on top of their spaghetti or in a bowl on the side. Notice that eating something entirely different from the family or not eating at all isn’t an option.
- Make eating fun: When meals turn into battles, the joy of sitting down as a family slips away. Rather than concentrating on every bite your child is (or isn’t) eating, turn the family’s attention toward something different. (Think food races and silly eating noises!) Some kids need to warm-up to new foods without any pressure to actually eat them. This is especially true for children with sensory aversions who are unwilling to eat certain tastes or textures. Parents can set up a messy-play-area where children are invited to use any of their senses to experience foods without the expectation of eating. Emphasizing touch and smell over taste can help children feel at ease with new or unusual foods.
- Other ideas to keep in mind:
- Kids love to dip! Offer every condiment in the fridge as a possible choice for dipping.
- Focus on healthy fats, like avocado or olive oil, to boost the content in your picky eater’s diet.
- Sneak fruits and vegetables into other foods. Entire cookbooks have been written to help parents with this age-old trick. (Check out recipes in The Sneaky Chef or Deceptively Delicious for some really sneaky ideas.)
- Make sure kids are hungry at mealtime. Too much snacking can destroy an appetite and reduce overall nutrient intake.
- If nothing else works, ask your pediatrician for a referral to a feeding expert. Specially trained mental health counselors, occupational therapists, and speech/language pathologists can help improve your child’s eating.
- Watch this video for more tips!
Lauren Ferguson, MS, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of Conifer Play Therapy. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Child Development and a master’s in Human Development and Family Studies. Lauren is a dedicated wife and mother of two rambunctious boys. She has enjoyed helping children and families thrive for over 20 years! For more information, visit www.coniferplaytherapy.com or call 720-323-9219.