Laura Fuentes shares some of the picky eater strategies that she learned over the last seven years of getting help for her picky eaters. She is the founder and CEO of MOMables.com and Laura Fuentes where she helps parents feed their families fresh food on an everyday basis with meal plans, recipes and so many other things.
I want to explain a little bit the difference between selective eaters and a really a true picky eater.
The clinical definition of a picky eater is a child who will eat anywhere around twenty foods or less. I’m talking twenty ingredients.
You have to sit down with a piece of paper and figure out if your child eats less than twenty. If so, seeking additional help from professionals is a good idea. That way you can establish if it is something clinical like swallowing issues or a food allergy. There’s a lot of contributing factors that can make a child picky.
But there's also what we call selective eaters and that is the kids that they really just prefer certain foods, whether it's by texture or just flavour.
About eighty percent of the parents and kids out there. Most of our kids are really just selective about what they like.
We also have kids who go through a picky eating stage and this is usually between the ages of eighteen months to almost five.
Parents first notice that their kids are becoming really selective about their food in their toddler years.
This is because our kids are really just learning to establish their independence, and food is the one thing that they can control.
When our kids are toddlers, they're realizing that they're little humans.
This is the stage where they're learning to assert their independence and what they think about things and the world around them.
At this stage, most parents are like "My kid just wants to eat only mac and cheese or they'll eat strawberries for four days and then they'll never eat it again or I’ll make their favourite food and then they decided they don't want it anymore."
This is because they're making their own choices.
I often get emails from parents asking me how I get my child to eat more vegetables, or how I get my child to eat meat or fruit.
I want you to think for a second.
How do you get someone to do something that they don't want to do?
You’re not going to get a person to do something that they don't want to do.
With food though it's different because kids can control what goes in their mouth. They know that we're not going to force feed them.
The kids know exactly that the table is the one place that they could manipulate us and it's the one place that they can get attention from us.
So establishing good eating habits should be the priority over getting our kids to eat because when we make something a habit, then it becomes routine.
This is the thing that shapes how our kids behave around food and so if you want to change behaviour at the table (meaning less fighting and less stress) what we first have to really think about is not "getting" our kids to eat something but establishing good eating habits.
Something that really changed my vision for my family's meals and it was really like a moment of enlightenment was when I learned about Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility.
The Division of Responsibility says that it's our job as parents to offer nourishing meals to our family. That means that we shop for meals, we prepare the meals and we bring it to the table.
That's where our responsibility ends as a parent.
The rest of responsibility falls on the people eating the food, meaning our kids.
It is our kids’ job to choose whether or not to eat something and therefore the act of offering food is more important than pushing or pressuring our kids to take a bite or to taste the food.
In a lot of homes we have these one bite rules, the tasting rules and all these things around basically getting your kids to eat.
Let’s be real okay? The reason we have these rules is to make ourselves feel better about our efforts in the kitchen and to kind of reassure ourselves that we're doing our job as parents.
However, this puts a lot of pressure on us as parents. There’s a lot of pressure to buy the right kind of food, select the right kind of recipes to make the food the right way and then to make sure that the kids actually eat vegetables.
We’ve all heard the playground talk where there's always a mom whose kid eats everything and we're sitting there going like, “Well, my kid doesn't eat that.”
The point is that we need to take away the pressure of someone else's performance from ourselves.
(Side note from Dr Orlena: Most kids can be roughly divided into 2 types of feeders. The "picky eater" who is frustrating from a parent's point of view because it feels like they won't eat anything (and generally is less likely to overeat) and the "will eat pretty much anything" kid who will eat different foods but has a natural propensity to overeat. They represent different challenges to parents. Both need to learn healthy eating habits but comparing one to the other will make both parents feel inadequate!)
When you're doing your job of offering foods like fruits and vegetables that we know are good for them does not determine the type of parent that you are if your kids choose not to eat them.
However, if you're not offering certain foods because we know our kids don't like it. Meaning “I know my kid's not going to eat the broccoli so I’m just not even going to bother offering it. I’m just going to make chicken nuggets again.” Then we're not doing our job at offering.
We're not meeting up our end of the deal in the responsibility of cooking, making and offering food to our family.
It’s really important to think about that our job as a parent is to provide the nutritious foods, to educate our kids about what foods are good for us.
But it’s also our job to eliminate the pressure.
When we pressure our kids to eat, what we're actually doing is providing pressure around mealtimes. Now all of a sudden, our kids associate mealtime and eating with performance based pressure.
It's like when you have a speech to make, and you are sitting there and, you know, your turn is next. You’re really nervous about giving your speech, you're nervous about how you're going to look, you're nervous about whether or not you're going to remember the words.
This is exactly the same type of pressure that a lot of our kids are experiencing when they come up to the table and we serve food in front of them.
Don't make your child feel bad about their eating!
Today, I just really want to share with you the idea that if you're shopping for food and you are providing and preparing good for your family meals and then you're offering these to your kids then you are doing your job.
You're doing a great job, actually.
You are providing the opportunity to try new foods, and as we all know, the opportunity is often all that we need.
Instead of setting ground rules about taking the first bite and tasting things we should to be establishing behavior rules on the table.
When our kids make comments or disgusted noises about the foods that we prepare, we have to explain to them that making rude comments hurt our our feelings and therefore is not acceptable.
You have to sit down with your child and explain:
“Hey Mary, when you say that mommy's food is yucky and gross, it hurts my feelings. If you don't like something, you don't have to eat it but you don't have to say that you don't like it.
When you paint a picture I’m always excited. Now we don't have to always hang it on the wall but I would never say that your picture is not nice or it's yucky because I know it would hurt your feelings. So when mommy spends time cooking dinner and you say that you don’t like it, hurts my feelings.”
You can leave it at that and you could also adjust this conversation to be age appropriate. But the concept is the same. You're putting the effort to make food and when they make a negative comment it hurts your feelings.
Therefore you’ve established the rule that if you don't like something you will not say, "yucky" and "gross". You will just simply say, "No thank you".
A food that they are going to be fighting against should not make it to their plate in the first place.
Something I always ask parents is if you're really struggling to get your kids to taste new foods, to have a better attitude about the foods that you make and if you want to eliminate the pressure that's being set at the table, one of the best ways to do this is to established that everybody is going to serve themselves.
For the younger kids you're going to assist with serving.
This means that they're going to go and get the food on the stove or on the counter. You are establishing a common area where the food is set and therefore the food is plated from and then brought to the table is really important.
This is where you meet at the middle. You're offering food and they can choose to eat it or not.
As a parent, it's very easy to over serve. A good rule of thumb is that the food you feed your child is what fits in the inside of the fist.
This is also a great opportunity to teach our kids about portion sizes. We all know that kids could just fill up on plain spaghetti and eat nothing else.
Assisting with portion sizes is really important here.
For example, you're going to serve stir fry. They all of a sudden our kids look at the star fry and go “Uhh there's broccoli, there’s peppers, there's vegetables, there's green stuff in there.”
Our job is to go “Listen, I know there's a lot of colors mixed in, but let's look at the things that you can eat. Would you like some chicken yes or no.” And they you would point them out to whatever else is in there and what other item they want on their plate.
In their mind they are going through the least of all evil. So they'll maybe say “I want some carrots or maybe they want just the red pepper.”
Now a lot of you would probably say, “Well, there's, no way that my child would ever select any vegetable.”
Not at first.
Our job is to ask if there is something else they want on their plate and if they say “No, thank you” then you have to respect that.
Overtime they're going to learn that their opinion matters.
Believe it or not, it does eventually work because different people in your family are going to like different things from what's being made. So the plates are going to look slightly different and overtime every person is going to observe that they're not eating something but someone else is and because everyone is enjoying the items are on the plate the general attitude towards new foods or towards tasting new foods it's going to change.
Therefore, eventually when you are plating and offering food and you offer some carrots or peppers or broccoli, you might be surprised that your child tries the carrot.
Oftentimes we just give up too soon.
It is very important to offer our kids the choice to try something or not. That’s how you get your kids to eat by working at this one meal at a time.
Another question that a lot of parents ask me is “If I don't offer something else to eat then my child's going to go hungry? Do I bring something else out?”
The answer is no.
Not every day is going to be a meal that your child hates. There’s always going to be a part of the meal that your kid is going to like and you're going to make sure of that.
Everything really changes when you shift the pressure from the table into creating choice when a meal is made.
Laura has lots of amazing resources to help you meal plan and help to feed your picky eater. (These links are affiliate links.)
She runs a Picky Eaters Course (PEAS). You can find out more about it here.
She also has a fantastic course the "Family KickStart Program" to help you ditch processed foods and sugar.)
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