How your picky eater could be doing way better than you realise
A mum in the Complete Confidence Program told me a story that was so similar to a million others I hear on a regular basis that I had to share.
On the surface it does not seem as though this is a ‘win’ at all. In fact, many parents would have seen this as anything from frustrating to a disaster.
Mum has been in the program long enough though that she was really excited and understood all the messages that her son was trying to communicate.
It was lunchtime on a Saturday, and she was eating crumbed calamari. Her primary-aged son Marcus* finds new foods really challenging but asked whether he could try the calamari. Mum said sure and he took a piece.
He put the piece on his plate and stared at it for about ten minutes. Finally, Marcus picked it up and took a tiny nibble of the crumb.
Fixing picky eating can be a real challenge. This is made twice as difficult when we miss cues that tell us actually our child is making progress. We are not taught to look for the subtle signs that say our hard work in fixing the problem is working.
We look for the obvious – our child is eating a new food – and for sure that is a great sign! But often there are many other little clues along the way that we miss. When we do not see these two problems arise:
1. We often stop doing things that are working as we are not seeing the progress we would like.
2. We get demoralised as we stop believing that our child is going to get better, is going to be able to eat more.
Are you crushed by the weight of your child’s fussy eating and feeling like nothing is getting better? If so, read on as you may find that positive signals are being sent, they are just in a different language!
How our picky eater is doing better than we realise
Let us go back to the story of Marcus and the calamari. It would be so simple to write this off as a fail as Marcus did not eat the calamari. Our thinking has been coloured to see eating as the only sign of success, but that is far too simplistic.
There are many, many steps to eating and putting it in the mouth and swallowing is the last.
The calamari success:
1. Marcus asked to try something. That is huge. A child voluntarily asking for a new food is a big step forward. It means they are:
i) Interested in food beyond their favourites and beyond what is right there in front of them on their own plate.
ii) They have a certain level of confidence. If the food was too scary to tackle, then there is no way they would be asking to try.
iii) The food is something different so wanting to branch out shows us that maybe they are not quite as fixed on the same foods as we think.
2. Marcus put the food on his plate. This for a lot of picky eaters is a big step in itself. Having something new on the plate can be a real challenge.
3. The food sat on his plate for about ten minutes with him not interacting with it. I can appreciate how this seems like a bad sign. But, if we could see inside Marcus’ head we would probably see him building up the courage to take the next step.
It is really common (and perfectly normal) to ask for a food and then not be able to eat it. This can be from the supermarket or in a café or at home. Our child plucks up the interest and then the courage to ask for something a little, or very, different. Then, when faced with actually eating the food it becomes overwhelming.
I know in this scenario it is so tempting to jump in and say something like ‘well, you chose it, so eat it’ but this puts our child under pressure and often turns them away from eating, rather than helping them to do so.
Marcus’ mum left him to make the decision on his own and did not focus on what he was doing. This gave him the time to think through whether he was ready to take the next step or not. It also gave him space to build up extra courage.
4. Marcus put the calamari up to his lips. This alone is a big step. Often putting something new in the mouth is a real challenge. Even if he had not eaten any I would have seen this as a big win.
5. Marcus took a bite from the crumb. I appreciate that this is was not devouring the whole piece of calamari and then asking for more. But being able to take a small piece – even just of the coating – shows Marcus has a comfort level with the new food. Yes, it was just the crumb this time, but it paves the way for something else next time.
I always look at the long-term implications of what is happening.
Would you have seen this as a positive?
The following week Marcus asked to try a pork chop with apple sauce. In this situation he accepted a tiny piece of pork on his plate and licked the apple sauce from the top. Bonus points for spotting where the positives are in this scenario!
Appreciating what progress is and understanding what is happening inside our child’s head in regards to eating, can be a really crucial part of the process of resolving picky eating.
If we see the calamari scenario as a win it:
a. Shows us that whatever we are doing is working!
b. That our child is making progress, even if they are not eating new foods.
c. Gives us the positive feedback we need to keep going.
Are you spotting the signs too?
(*name changed for privacy)
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/