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My child is a picky eater. Do I need professional help?

Four questions you should ask yourself before seeking advice for your picky eater child

As a clinical psychologist specializing in all food, eating and body image difficulties, I have seen pretty much everything relating to the challenges parents face when they are trying to manage a child who they described as a ‘fussy’ or ‘picky eater’.

The thing is, as obvious as it sounds, we often forget that our relationship with food is like any other relationship: it’s complex! And, it really requires the right balance of management, understanding, acceptance and sometimes, letting go.

Whenever parents come to see me about their children’s eating behaviors, I start by exploring four main areas with them. Only once these have really been considered do I recommend any additional help or ongoing work.

I hope this post can help guide any readers who are concerned about their child’s eating patterns to think more about the problem at hand.

1) What are your beliefs about food, eating and your body?

This is not about parent shaming. And it’s definitely not about adding to the bucket of guilt you already feel as a parent. So throw that judgement card out the window!

At the same time, you do need to be honest with yourself about what your own beliefs about food and eating are. As much as we try not to pass on our “own issues” to our children, somehow they will always still pick up on it. Consider the following questions:

Do you or anyone in your family skip meals?

  • Do you often eat cookies, chocolate or other snacks instead of eating a real meal?
  • Do you create a different meals for yourself or someone else in the family? This includes making different food for religious or ethical reasons, e.g. vegetarian/vegan meals.
  • Do you demand your kids eat at the table but then spend your meals in front of the TV?
  • Are you a member of the clean plate club and feel you HAVE to eat everything on your plate to avoid wasting food?
  • Do you talk badly about your body or gossip about other people’s body, weight or shape?
  • Do you speak about food as though it has a morale composition e.g. I’m going to be bad and have this naughty cupcake?

All of these behaviors (and many more) will filter through to your kids without you even realizing and can have a negative impact on their relationship with food.

If some, or all of this is sounding a little familiar, it may be that instead of working on your kids to ‘eat better’, now may be the time to work as a family or individually to explore your own food related issues.

2) Are you considering your child’s own preferences?

It’s funny how our anxieties as parents to ensure our kids are “getting all the right food and nutrients” overtakes our ability to see them as unique individual people with their own likes and dislikes.

  • How many adults do you know that gave up meat because they simply didn’t like the taste?
  • How many people have heard someone talk about not eating mushrooms, for example, because of the texture?
  • How often do we go to a coffee shop or restaurant and always order the exact same thing because that is what we really like?

Of course, it is so frustrating when we try to encourage our kids to have a varied diet, but quite often there are times when I will see kids who simply just do not like particular foods or just prefer more bland tasting food. It’s not that there’s anything wrong, it’s just part of their personal preference. They may grow out of it, they may not. But quite often, if we can work around their preferences and respect that there will be things they just don’t like, you will see much happier eating times for everyone.

3) Is there actually a problem?

There are some cases where unfortunately, due to a medical or nutritional condition, parents really need to monitor what and how much their child eats. If this is the case and you have been advised by a doctor or specialist to manage your child’s food intake for health reasons, then of course this is something to be taken seriously and there are strategies, tools and professionals that can support you with this.

However, many times I have parents who are distressed about their child’s picky eating because some comment or comments have been made that describes their child in a particular way, such as “underweight,” “skinny” or “thin.” Sometimes it comes from those graphs that highlight the child as being in the the bottom percentiles for their age. Sometimes it comes from a pediatrician or doctor. Sometimes it is just the mindless passing comment said by family or friends. Whatever the reason, it triggers the parents concern about their child’s weight, health or well-being and consequentially they worry about their eating habits. This is when you, the parent, might actually need some realistic reassuring.

  • Some children will naturally be ‘thin.’
  • Some children will naturally be underweight.
  • Some children will be in the bottom percentile for weight.
  • Some children will have small appetites,
  • Some children will have very clear preferences and dislikes for food.
  • Some children will naturally be what we call a ‘picky eater.’
  • The truth is, many adults are like this too! It is normal.

The reason these distributions exist is exactly because there is variation in characteristics. If this were not the case then there would simply be a binary category: normal weight or abnormal weight.

Providing there are no actual medical issues, simply being underweight or having a skinny structure, or have a small repertoire of food preferences, does not mean there is anything to worry about (just like being overweight does not absolutely mean you are unhealthy – though that s is a topic for a different conversation).

There are kids that just aren’t that in to food. They get distracted easily and are excited to explore the world. Food just isn’t such a big deal to them. They eat what they need when they get hungry – and often their bodies just don’t need that much food.Its OK! They will not starve or get some fatal nutritional disease just because they only eat a little. Either they will grow out of it, or they will be one of those adults who simply don’t make such a big deal about food. And with our ever growing obesity epidemic and fewer people actually listening their bodies, it’s not such a bad thing to let the children who are not fussed about food just get on with it.

4) Are you willing to commit to making the change?

One of the biggest issues that come up, is from parents who are so concerned about their kids not eating, they end up in a vicious cycle of only giving them the foods they don’t want them to have. It always starts off so innocently. Parents offer food to their child. The child doesn’t like it, so doesn’t eat anything. The anxious parent then worries that their child will be hungry, or worse yet- starve. So they offer something else: A different meal there and then; a chocolate milk in the evening because “poor baby must be so hungry”; the cookie at tea time or the so-called ‘healthy packaged baby snack’ instead of breakfast (which btw are mostly full of clever marketing and processed rubbish).

Now, don’t get me wrong, as parents we’ve all been there and done this. Letting your child have an ice-cream because they didn’t eat much lunch every-so-often is not going to cause any issue. However, it does become a problem when the child start to understand that mom or dad won’t let them go hungry. Once they realize this, it’s simple. They continue to refuse breakfast (for example) and eagerly await their mid morning snack feast. The real icing on the cake (no pun intended) is that the child is then so full from the nutrition-less, high-calorie, processed snack, that he is now also not hungry for a decent lunch. So he refuses to eat at lunch time too. By the time 4pm comes along, he is hungry and irritable and mom and dad feel so bad that he hasn’t eaten all day, so they give in to the hunger driven temper tantrum, because ‘having chocolate milk is quite simply better than him not eating at all’….. and so the cycle continues and the fussy eater is born.

In these cases, as parents you have two choices: either commit to the change and follow it all the way through, or accept it and let it go.

Committing to the change means that there will be a period of little eating. It means that your child will probably have a meltdown, possibly lasting hours and hours by not getting his 4pm Kit Kat meal replacement. It means that mom and dad will have to manage their own anxiety, guilt and irrational beliefs that their child will starve himself in protest indefinitely, until he withers away. The silver lining? If you do this and follow through, change will come and you will have broken the cycle. But this can be full on and you (mom and dad) may want support to help you get through it.

There is another option though. You can choose to accept it and let it go.

The hardest thing I see, are parents who desperately want their child to change but are just not willing to go through the pain to make the changes happen. The worry or guilt is simply too torturous for them. And I really get it! We love our children more than anything else on this planet, so why would we want to do anything to cause them distress, especially around food. For these parents (who I see a lot of) I always explain that there really is no right or wrong, just what works for you and your family. You don’t have to commit to changing anything but you do need to realize that the misery and pain of the situation as it is, is not helping anyone. So the work here is to stop feeling bad or guilty. Stop hating yourself for every snack or meal replacement. Stop judging yourself for feeding your child whatever it is they will eat. Stop comparing yourself to other parents whose kids eat well.

Your child will grow up fine. More than fine. There are kids and adults all over the world who have what we call ‘poor nutritional diets’ and they live happy, healthy and fulfilled lives. There have been many world renowned and highly successful people with weird and funny eating habits. Let it go and focus instead on just enjoy all the precious moments with your kids, regardless of what they eat.

I hope this post provides ‘food for thought’ to any parents who are struggling with a ‘picky eater.’ If these issues or anything related comes up please feel free to leave a comment or get in touch me at Village

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