Help for Picky Eaters
Last week on the blog we talked about the many, many reasons why you could have ended up with a picky eater in your midst! See blog here: https://theconfidenteater.com/blog/picky-eating-support/why-is-my-child-a-picky-eater/
Everything from autism to allergies can set our child off on a different path around food. The longer we journey on this path and the further we wander from the direction everyone else is heading in, the more difficult it becomes for us and for our family.
This is usually where parents are when they get in touch with us. Far off the regular path and without a map to get back.
What I have found though, is that parents are the ones that can make a difference. Armed with some simple strategies and a renewed confidence they can slowly support their child to head back in the right direction.
How to help my picky eater
Last week we looked at some of the reasons picky eating begins. If your child ticks more than one of these it may make your challenges tougher to overcome, but it definitely does not mean that it is not going to happen.
I have watched families go from serving peanut butter on crackers for breakfast, lunch and dinner to cooking a normal menu, it can be done!
Similarly, I have seen children with ASD or sensory issues who have been too scared to even touch a food that is not in the comfort zone be able to tackle new foods.
Let us look at some of the challenges and some of the solutions.
How you can help your picky eater
Resolving picky eating is often not complicated, but it is usually a long-term process. We make a firm commitment, make it a priority and then take steps each week to support progress.
Many of the actions are small and easy to do, but we have to take them to make the difference.
Let us look through the 10 reasons for picky eating we discussed last week and talk through some strategies that may help our child:
1. ASD – being on the spectrum often means a very rigid approach to many things. It also makes change a challenge.
Both of these create difficulties for resolving picky eating as rigidity – where a food has to be a specific brand or colour or served in exactly the same way – makes life difficult.
Not liking change is also a barrier for moving forwards as one of the key ways to support a child to eat new things is by introducing change.
This all makes it sound impossible, but it isn’t!
A great way to start is to figure out what our child finds the most challenging. Is it the appearance, the texture, the packaging, or the smell of a food that is key?
If it is the appearance, we can often make changes that are acceptable for our child as they maintain that consistency. For example, a vanilla smoothie but with some apple puree added. If it doesn’t change the look, often it is a step that is OK.
If it is texture and crunchy is the important thing then what else can we find that has the same mouth feel? Substituting roasted chick peas for chippies is probably too big a step, but we may be able to find a new chippie flavour or a different sort of cracker.
Each baby step takes us in a new direction and starts to build our confidence that change is possible.
2. Sensory sensitivities. Tackling these can often be done in the same way as for children on the spectrum. What are the key challenges for our child? Is it the way something feels or the sound it makes, for example.
If something feels horrible on the hands, it is not going to be a winner in the mouth. But, did you know that helping our child to feel more comfortable with it on the hands actually helps when it goes in the mouth?
Totally true! So working with things like sensory bins or doing messy play can be really supportive.
Older children often become less overwhelmed by their sensitivities as they age, but still have the same negative feelings towards the foods that were challenging previously.
In this case gently overcoming the initial gut reaction towards those foods – and a good way to do this is to handle and be around them – is really supportive.
3. Anxiety. Many children who are challenged around food are generally anxious or extremely anxious, but only around food. It is a great place to “channel” feelings as it is totally under a child’s control.
If general anxiety is a feature, then supporting our child to feel more confident will, over time help with the food.
When anxiety around food is the core challenge then gradually building more comfort around food will always help. Often doing this away from the table and not being focused on the eating side of things enables our child to gently become more confident.
4. Allergies and intolerances. If your child has had an undiagnosed period where food has made them uncomfortable, it is not surprising that picky has entered the equation.
Tackling this as we would any other discomfort or anxiety around food, with lots of low pressure contact in a non-threatening environment is a great start.
If certain foods are off the menu, avoiding them makes catering more of a challenge for sure, especially when they have been staples for your child. Looking for substitutes that tick as many boxes as possible would be the first step.
Also understanding that a new product is never going to be as easy to begin with as a trusted favourite. Sometimes it does take time!
5/6. Slow development of motor skills/other medical challenges.
It is always good to check that there are no physical reasons that our child is unable to eat.
Once our child has no barriers to eating comfortably, it can be helpful to go back to the beginning. For example, current advice is that if our child missed out on the playing with food stage, they should go back and do this, even if they are now 8!
Eating follows a logical pattern and if we haven’t mastered one of the stages it can make things more challenging later on.
7. Constipation. Obviously, having a big mass of waste not moving through our system not only makes us uncomfortable, but also makes it challenging to eat.
Resolving the constipation probably won’t see a magical change in the picky eating but it will remove one of the barriers to supporting our child to move forwards.
8/9. Trauma. If our child’s eating struggles began with a particular challenge or because life threw a curve ball at them or the family, then making sure that is no longer an issue is the first step. For example, if there is a fear of choking, then solving that is priority number one.
If our child’s eating has gone off track and the initial challenge is long resolved, but they are still not eating well, then it is back to the gentle, consistent strategies that enable them to move forwards.
This is building their comfort around food and feeding. It is proving that change can be OK, and it is giving them confidence.
10. Power. Whether food began as a power struggle or not, over time power usually becomes a feature of all picky eating challenges. Often, this is not even done consciously on the part of our child. We have all just fallen into routines and changing that is challenging so they prefer not to!
If power is a part of the equation, then ensuring we manoeuvre ourselves back so we’re in charge is really important.
It’s also about not having an us v them situation at the table. Any time they are pitted against us the potential for a battle is there.
Eating is complicated and there are so many factors that can either support or hinder our child’s progress. Understanding some of the reasons behind why our child finds food a struggle is a great start.
From there, it is building a plan and then putting it into action.
In no time we can have a child that is eating a far wider range than we ever thought possible!
If you’d like some help building a plan you can book in for a complimentary chat with me here: https://calendly.com/judith-23/bookatimewithjudith?month=2020-08
Judith is mum to two boys, a tween and a teen and is the author of Creating Confident Eaters. My dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
I delight in showing parents how to get picky eaters eating in simple, gentle, practical steps that anyone can master. I graduated from Cambridge University and have qualifications in nutrition, parent education and am a trained telephone support worker for ParentHelpline. I am currently working towards qualifying as a psychologist. I would love to understand more of the “why” behind fussy eating and to eventually spearhead research in this area.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/