Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Jaelithe's Tricks for Tricking Picky Eaters

Since I started this blog, I have had a number of other mothers, and fathers, leave comments or send me emails telling me that their children are picky eaters, too, and wondering if I had any good advice.

I'm not sure I do have good advice, but I can give advice based things that have worked for me, with my child, in my home.

Since I know very well how stressful and upsetting it can be for a parent when your child won't eat, I have decided to provide the internet with a few of my strategies.

Note of course that I am not a nutritionist, or a child psychologist, or an occupational therapist, or a news channel talking head. I'm just a mom with an underweight, exceedingly picky kid, and I have seen and talked to a lot of experts and tried a lot of different strategies in the course of my ongoing quest to help my son become a better eater.

So, without further ado:

Jaelithe's Tricks for Tricking Picky Eaters

Let your child play with his food. And I don't mean just at dinner time. Let her help you get it down from the shelf and put in the cart at the grocery store. Let him help you prepare the food in the kitchen. If you have an older child, you might want to talk about where your food comes from. Say, "Apples grow on apple trees," or, "Pasta is made from flour, which comes from a kind of grass, called wheat." Let your child help pick berries at a farm, or grow a backyard vegetable garden. Get your child interested in food outside of the context of eating it.

At play time, let your child paint pictures with chocolate pudding or applesauce—it's really not any messier than finger paint, is it?— or build towers with banana slices. If your child is reluctant to play with certain kinds of food because of an aversion to the food's color, scent or texture, start playing with it yourself and allow your child to join in at his leisure.

Roleplay cooking, serving and eating food with toy food, a toy stove and toy utensils.

And, yes, assuming you don't eat out every night at a five star restaurant, let your child touch her food and get it all over her fingers if she wants to at the dinner table.

Picky eaters are afraid of the unfamiliar, and so, the more familiar a certain type of food becomes, the more likely it is that the child will eventually become willing to try it.

Don't let your child's reluctance to touch a food get in the way of her eating it. If your child really dislikes getting sticky fingers while eating fresh fruit, cut an apple or a pear into small pieces and let him eat it with a fork. Make sure there are plenty of napkins around within your child's reach so that if he does drip some food on himself, he can clean it off quickly before it starts to bother him. And let him use the napkin himself—don't do it for him unless he's utterly distraught. Learning that he can take care of uncomfortable sensations himself will help him feel more in control of the situation.

Or, if your child won't eat the food with utensils, she may allow you to feed her the food yourself (but don't force it into her mouth—ask if she would like you to put a piece of the food in her mouth for her, and then do so slowly and gently.)

Now of course, your ultimate goal should be to get your child feeding himself at all times, and accepting the same food in many different forms (i.e., you don't want a 13-year-old insisting that all apples must be cut into bite-sized pieces and eaten with a fork, preferably a fork wielded by her mother). But, I have found that after a texture-averse child has been assisted with a certain food multiple times, she will eventually become more comfortable about touching the food with her hands, feeding herself, and accepting the same type of food in a different preparation.

Go ahead and bribe the kid already. I know that some nutritionists will take issue with my saying this, because our nation's bad eating habits have led to a childhood obesity epidemic, and everything you do to influence the way your child views food when he is three will influence his entire future including whether he gets to be world president, or winds up scrubbing toilets at McDonald's, etcetera, yada, yada, yada.

But, listen, in my completely unprofessional, from-the-trenches opinion, if you're like me, trying to feed an extremely picky, extremely underweight child, who NEEDS to gain weight RIGHT NOW, in order to maintain proper health and growth, the last thing you need is to be worrying about on top of your other worries is whether bribing your super-skinny child to finish her meal by offering her one chocolate chip cookie for dessert today will somehow find her sobbing at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting twenty years from now.

Of course it's important to model good eating habits for your children, but, I believe that developing a healthy relationship to food is an ongoing process, and I don't believe the occasional offering of a bite of dessert in exchange for a bite of broccoli will necessarily permanently destroy your child's future with food.

But, the good news is, you don't even necessarily have to use unhealthy food as a bribe.

Many picky kids have at least one healthy food that they like. For example, I often bribe my own son with dried coconut or dried fruit. Think about the healthy, or at least not-unhealthy, foods that your own child likes. (And remember also that unhealthy for adults is not the same as unhealthy for children, especially underweight children. Children need a good deal more fat in their diets than adults do, for brain development. So, fatty foods like coconut, avocado, nut butters, cheese and whole milk can actually be good for kids who aren't overweight.)

I generally find that the best way to bribe a child into trying a new food, or eating a familiar food the child will only occasionally tolerate, is to offer a small amount of a food the child likes in exchange for each bite of the new or underappreciated food. For example, don't say, "If you just try this spinach once, you can have a whole apple pie!" Just say, "If you try one bite of this pasta, you can have one chocolate chip."

Use reverse psychology. I suspect this works especially well if your child is in the two-to-three-year-old age range, but it will probably work to a certain extent with older children, too.

If your child refuses to eat the food on his plate, very casually say, "Oh, you don't want that food? Well, can I eat it, then?"

This will often trigger an immediate change of attitude toward the food. What once was just a stupid plate of weird overly mushy mashed potatoes is suddenly MY plate of mashed potatoes, that Mommy or Daddy wants to TAKE AWAY FROM ME! If the food on the plate is something you have had some success in getting your child to eat before, this will often work on the first try.

However, if your child says "Yes, please eat it!" don’t give up. Start eating small bites of your child's food, right in front of your child. Your actually eating the food will sometimes cause the child to demand that you give the plate back to her if simply asking for it won't. As you eat the food, try saying things like, "It's too bad Janey didn't want this muffin. It tastes really good. I guess she just doesn't like muffins." But don’t overact or make a huge deal out of it—with picky kids, it's always best to try to keep dinnertime drama to a minimum.

Now, obviously reverse psychology doesn't work every time. It all depends on whether your child's territorial instincts (and general desire to prove his parents wrong) are strong enough to override his aversion to the particular food you are offering.

(By the way, if you have a two or three-year-old, reverse psychology also works pretty well when you want your kid to dress herself, or put away her toys. "Oh? You won't help me with this? All right. I'll just do it myself then. I guess maybe you're not old enough to help me yet.")

Seek out new nutritious foods that are similar in form and texture to food your child already eats. Did you know that Whole Foods Market carries vegetable chips made from real whole sliced vegetables? If you have a potato chip lover, try sneaking some veggie chips in instead. If your child won't eat fresh fruit, but loves raisins, have you tried offering him dried blueberries, dried cherries, or dried apples? If she'll eat bread all day long, will she eat banana bread? Zucchini bread? Pumpkin bread? Have you tried it?

Be as understanding and patient as you can manage. Remember that your child most likely really is afraid of trying new foods, and really isn't refusing to eat just to be ornery.

Watching your child refuse to eat perfectly tasty, nutritious food that you purchased and prepared for him yourself can be an incredibly frustrating experience, especially if it happens several times each day, and even more especially if your child's poor eating habits are leading you to be concerned about her health. Providing food for your child is one of your most fundamental duties as a parent, and it can be absolutely maddening when you feel as though you are doing everything right to provide your child with a nutritious diet, but your child is still refusing to cooperate.

It's okay to get frustrated. It's okay to get mad. It's okay to excuse yourself from the room and go cry and punch a pillow, if you have to. But try to keep your cool in front of your child at mealtimes, and try to remember that your child is refusing the food—not your love.

Everyone tastes foods differently, and we all have certain foods we don't like. When your child makes a face after trying a new food, try to imagine how you would feel if someone were trying to force your least favorite food on you.

We also all have irrational fears. Are you scared of heights? Leery of elevators? Nervous about driving? Terrified of harmless bugs that can't even sting you? Imagine the way you felt the last time you had to face one of your irrational fears, and remember that that may very well be how your child is feeling about eating, every day.

Making your child's fear of certain foods real in your mind can help you become more attuned to his feelings while he is eating, and being more attuned to your child's feelings can help you judge whether a particular moment is a good moment to push your child to take another step in overcoming his fear, or if it would be better just let things slide and try again next time.

Above all, remember that this situation is not your fault. It's not your child's fault. It's just an obstacle the two of you are faced with to surmount, together.