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How to deal with picky eaters

Family dinners

Picky eaters — the term conjures images of pursed-lipped toddlers with a spoon pressed to their mouths or the pouting child in front of his plate of untouched vegetables. It can wear on a parent’s patience to prepare a perfectly acceptable and palatable meal for the family, only to have your child refuse to eat it.

First, it is important to distinguish a “picky eater” from a child with genuine feeding issues. Feeding issues involve poor coordination of the mouth muscles making swallowing, biting, or chewing difficult for a child. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, feeding disorders involve an observable difficulty in your child’s ability to gather food, put it in his mouth, and chew properly without the food falling out of his mouth. Swallowing disorders (dysphagia) involve the consumption of food accompanied by gagging, choking, or vomiting. If you have concerns of this nature, please seek out a proper evaluation through your local educational system or consult your pediatrician.

What we are addressing here is your child’s avoidant behaviors during mealtimes. Whether the issue is finishing his food or eating a particular food, there are some strategies you can adopt to make mealtimes a pleasurable daily routine.

• Cooking and eating together — Many families have difficulty finding time to sit down and eat together on a daily basis, but it is an important learning experience for your child. Turn off the TV, phones, and computers and take a few minutes to sit together at a table to enjoy a meal or a snack. If doing so daily feels impossible, designate one to two nights a week where this is the routine of the household.

Additionally, making your little one part of the food preparation gets his taste buds going and increases his motivation to taste what he his making. Even a child as young as 2 years old can be of some help. Give him opportunities to mix, shake, knead, pour, and scoop.

• What you see is what you get — Do you find yourself preparing an alternative meal for your picky eater? Stop doing this. When your child refuses to eat what you have prepared, then he doesn’t eat. If you behave like a short-order cook, your child will treat you like one. Your child will not starve. If mealtime is over and that plate of food is still being glared at by your child, untouched, stay cool, slap some foil on it, and tell him to let you know when he is feeling hungry. Guess what’s on the menu.

• Don’t be a hypocrite — Take a look at your plate. Did you eat everything, or are your vegetables getting pretty cold hiding under that napkin? Practicing what you preach goes a long way when your child is testing the limits. Have your child see you eating the foods he tends to avoid during and outside of mealtimes.

• Don’t be sneaky — I’ve heard that some parents hide non-preferred foods in a preferred food by mixing veggies into mashed potatoes or hiding chunks of fruit inside yogurt. Here is the problem with this: children don’t like to be tricked, and when you try to do so, it breaks down the trust between parent and child. Also, you may have now turned that preferred food into a non-preferred food. The next time he gets mashed potatoes, he might assume you are trying to trick him again.

If you are going to try mixing the preferred and non-preferred foods, make your child part of the process, having him do the mixing. Or, as he watches you do it, explain to him what you are doing. “Mmm, this yogurt is yummy. Look, I’m putting in some grapes and apples. Can you mix that up? Can you fish the apple chunk out of your yogurt?”

This type of dialogue communicates to your child that you are not trying to fool him. Remember, if you are going to be sneaky, don’t be surprised when your child behaves the same way.

• Let’s make a deal — Have an arsenal of potential reinforcers to deliver to your child besides the obvious offering of dessert. Take some time to observe what your child would rather be doing instead of eating. Most children would be happy to tell you if asked. Maybe it’s watching a movie, playing a board or video game, or some rough-and-tumble playtime. Make a deal with your child. Determine the amount of food you want him to eat, and put your offer on the table, so to speak.

• Simplify your demands — Avoid trying to combat portion consumption with introducing a non-preferred food. Address each issue at separate mealtimes. If the child avoids a certain food, accept his gradual acceptance of it by introducing a small amount of it along with a greatly preferred food. (Don’t hide it!) For each taste of the non-preferred, he gets some of his preferred.

If you are concerned that your child seems to have no appetite for much of anything, most likely, he is fine, but consult with your pediatrician. If he takes a couple of bites, and then wants to leave the table, remind him of your deal. If he isn’t willing to sit, make sure that you have minimized access to his favorite activities.

I’d like to emphasize that if you are concerned with your child’s speech development, and he is also displaying difficulty during meal times, you should have him evaluated. Aside from that, mealtimes require structure and boundaries in order for them to run smoothly. Determine what mealtime structure works best for your family’s lifestyle. Respect the fact that your child is “picky,” but don’t allow his eating habits to change yours.

Dana Connelly holds dual Master’s Degrees in Education and Special Education, working as an educational evaluator for a New York-based evaluation site. She specializes in Applied Behavior Analysis and is the proud single mother of a 5-year-old boy.

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