The 5 biggest mistakes to avoid with a picky eater
The internet, family and friends are all full of advice as to how to get a picky eater eating. The longer we have had a fussy child in our midst, the more strategies we have heard that will supposedly get them eating.
If it were easy, we would have slam dunked that recipe or idea months ago. But it is not. I am here to say that resolving picky eating is never easy. It can be simple, but it is rarely easy.
In fact, parents usually have to make a commitment and then put in some had yards at the beginning. Having said that, once a child becomes more confident it gets easier and easier. We also have all the upsides start to appear, like relaxed meals and being able to go to a restaurant or on holiday without stressing about food.
I was thinking over the weekend how easy it is to fall into some of the picky eating pitfalls and unintentionally make progress more difficult.
Making sure we are not falling into some of these traps is a great start!
The 5 biggest mistakes to avoid with a picky eater
1. Expecting our child to go from looking to eating.
Eating is a complicated process. In fact, it is one of the most complex physiological tasks we perform.
I have a 7 step process (the focus of Book II) that takes parents through the steps from looking at a food to being able to eat it. Seven steps!
These steps are very much like stepping-stones too, so skipping a few doesn’t usually yield great results …
The biggest mistake I see in teaching a child to eat something new is expecting them to see a new food and then be able to eat it.
How many times have we cooked the “special thing” and then put it onto our child’s plate, got a hard no from them and felt totally defeated?
My expectation would be that I would get a hard no from a child that suddenly has a food sprung upon them at the table.
My favourite analogy is a swimming one. We would never (well, not these days) take our child to the local pool for the first time and expect to chuck them in the deep end and have them swim competently.
Plonking a new food on a child’s plate and expecting them to eat it is very similar!
2. We don’t go from crackers to eggplant.
New foods can be an enormous challenge for a picky eater.
Often, as a parent we inadvertently make this worse. We desperately want them to eat the greenery, or the meat or the cheese and so that is what we’re trying to get them to do.
In fact, I recommend the opposite. It is always about meeting our child where they are at. If they are stuck on a very limited diet of crackers and toast, their first thought is not going to be “how can I get me some of that kale?”.
Introducing a new cracker or a new topping for the toast is likely to be far more successful, and definitely not a waste of time.
Building genuine confidence our child is able to eat new foods and eat them comfortably and happily is far more valuable long-term than trying to go from the toast to a salad.
3. Not recognising progress.
As discussed, there are many steps in the eating process. In fact, depending on how they are measured it is actually 30+ – eek!
It is therefore super important that we do not get focused on the final step, which is the chewing and swallowing. There are many little steps that come before that that are equally as valuable.
Remember the stepping-stones? We cannot go from looking at a food to eating it. Everything that happens in between is equally as important.
Maybe that is becoming more comfortable around certain foods, or perhaps it’s become interested in what mum and dad are eating. All these can be really positive signs and not to be discounted.
Knowing how to recognise progress makes a real difference in long term outcomes.
Family and friends are often a nightmare in this regard. There is no progress if something is not being eaten. But it really is not that simple!
4. Not believing there is a solution.
Almost every family I work with has spent months or even years trying to support their child to eat more comfortably and more widely.
Each time there is a fail, it gives our confidence a bit of a knock and makes us less and less confident that we are going to be able to help our child.
Most children who are picky eaters are “stubborn” around food.
Its logical, if food is difficult why not say no?
The paradox is, that once we decide that there are no solutions, or none that we can do ourselves, we often stop really trying.
Not because we are lazy or don’t care, but because we feel stuck and continually get faced with that hard NO from our child.
When we stop trying then the chance of progress stalls too. Our child is not going to be able to make progress if we are not gently and consistently supporting them to do so.
Believing we can make a difference and then setting out to make that a reality is where we need to be, but there is often a huge psychological hurdle preventing us.
5. Giving up too soon.
I speak to many parents who are doing so many great things with their children around food.
They have got so many of the basics in place and are doing many things that I would recommend. But then the results don’t come and so they stop.
Teaching a child, and especially a food hesitant one, is a long-term project.
Moreover, we have those 30+ steps to work through so although we may not be seeing new things eaten, a lot of other positive things can be happening.
But, because we are programmed to only see progress measured by what gets eaten, we often stop doing things that are working, or are helping.
I always relate teaching a young child to eat, to teaching them to read. It is that constant exposure and that loving consistency that is going to pay off.
Eating is no different. It is about love and long-term, and keeping going even if the results aren’t obvious.
Book II is very close to being published. It will go into all these topics in detail and show parents how to work through the steps to eating confidently and easily.
If you would like to put your name on the list to receive one of the first copies, please get in touch.
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/