Ah, my other child is following my picky eater!
Siblings are always going to copy each to some extent, and it is usually the behaviours we like the least that they follow the most!
If our fussy eater is the oldest it can make the situation even more tricky as they are modelling behaviour for the younger ones. Young children often look up to big bother or sister and want to copy what they are doing.
Why is your other child/children following the picky eater?
If we have a picky eater they are often being inadvertently rewarded. We are usually not meaning to reward them for their picky eating, but it often ends up like that.
1. They get to eat the cool stuff. Everyone else maybe wading through a stew, but the fussy eater has a plate of “high reward food” in terms of crunchy, salty, sweet, moreish.
2. If the food is not to their liking, they get to leave it. Meanwhile the rest of the family is eating things that are OK, but not favourites every time.
3. They get a LOT of attention. Yes, much of this is negative, but attention is attention.
4. We pander to them. Where we may get frustrated and have little patience for another child whinging about food, often when we have a fussy eater we do bend over backwards to make sure we have their nuggets or the “right” crackers.
When there are other siblings, they are watching all of this on a daily basis. There are a lot of messages being given out, and not all of them work in our favour!
As discussed, if the fussy eater is the older one, then they are naturally to be followed.
Am I likely to have 2 picky eaters?
Having two children who are extremely selective from the outset, or who have extreme anxiety around food is not at all common. In my experience most families have “the” picky eater and the other siblings have a far easier relationship with food.
However, having a brother or sister who is extremely fussy can often cause other siblings to develop a less competent behaviour around food over time. It’s also interesting that siblings can become gradually fussy without parents even noticing. In comparison to the picky eater they are still amazing.
What can I do?
As parents we often feel very powerless in the face of picky eating. This can tip over into a fussy child gaining more and more “power” over time.
When I interview parents I often ask, “who is in charge when it comes to food?”. Their answer – even if they have a two-year-old, is usually, “they are!”.
Being in charge is one of the number one priorities when beginning to resolve picky eating, and many of the suggestions below work best when we have that control.
1. Serve only one meal. I speak to many families where poor mum is making two or even three different meals every night (it should be illegal).
Does that mean serving a lasagne and everyone eats it or starves? No. It’s having a family meal that everyone is expected to participate in.
If we have a picky eater there is part of that meal that ticks boxes for them, for example, the pasta.
This makes everything simpler for siblings too. They are not eating a meal that is not a huge win for them while watching their brother get to eat nuggets and fries.
2. Role model. What parents eat and how they behave around food does have a big influence long term on the eating habits that children develop. Vegetable eating parents are more likely to have children who do the same.
Making sure that the other children follow you, rather than the picky eater is all about those dynamics and who is really in charge.
3. Positive words and actions only at the table. There is enormous power in words and facial expressions. Think how crushing the words and actions of a bully can be for a young child. When it comes to food, in some ways this all gets magnified.
If our fussy eater is saying “ew, disgusting” in regards to the food on the table, it is far more challenging for the other children to see it as delicious.
On the other hand, if siblings are making faces and saying negative things about a food, it makes eating that, doubly hard for the picky eater.
Changing the way that EVERYONE talks about food is critically important.
4. Labels can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we speak of our child as fussy or picky, we are telling them that they are different, that they are not able to eat like the other family members.
It gives our child a “get out of gaol-free card” too. I don’t need to try this as I’m a picky eater.
Siblings often take up the baton and talk about their brother or sister in these terms. It reinforces the message and makes it more challenging for progress. It can also become a title that has merits for a sibling!
5. Give our child the chance to eat. What we do at the table can have an enormous influence on what happens long-term.
“Oh, she won’t eat that” will probably make sure that she won’t.
If our child says “I don’t like that” it is also important to reframe. Any time we tell ourselves over and over again that we can’t eat something, it’s making it more likely that we won’t.
Enabling everyone at the table to have some of everything on their plate supports eating variety. If we are just looking at nuggets, we are more likely to just eat nuggets.
For siblings having a plate that does have a selection of different foods, helps them to continue to eat variety.
6. Behaviour v picky eating. If we have a picky eater there are often blurred lines between what is discomfort around food and what is “I only want to eat my favourites”. Another reason it is necessary that as the parent we are in charge around food.
Figuring out what is behavioural – and addressing it appropriately – is important. This is positive too as it means that the whole table doesn’t descend into a zoo or a place where there is constant friction and stress.
Siblings watching a picky eater get special treatment at the table can be a source of conflict.
7. Look critically at what is happening at the table. Are siblings egging each other on at the table. Is the picky eater grossed out by the way his younger sister eats? Does little brother follow everything that big brother does?
Can we separate them? Can we put something in between, to prevent the eye contact? What about changing seating arrangements?
8. Create family rules. Have easy and specific rules for behaviour at the table. Let everyone know what you expect and have everyone stick to those.
The family table is exactly that, a place to come together and reconnect in the middle of busy lives. What happens there can produce long term positives if we set out to create a place of enjoyment and pleasure.
Perfection is overrated and unobtainable, but when we set out to make the table a great place to be for everyone things tend to drop into place more easily.
Focus on the positives and play down the undesirable! Having the picky eater want to follow everyone else, rather than be the beacon to follow can absolutely be managed.
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 a Masters degree in Psychology. I would love to understand more of the “why” behind fussy eating and to eventually spearhead research in this area.