Tired of the battle! Picky Eating as Self Protection!

Melinda Cassells
A child pushing away a plate of food

Being a parent is incredible and life with children brings moments of joy, wonder, and occasional challenges. One such challenge that many parents face is dealing with picky eating. It’s easy to become frustrated or worried when your little one turns up their nose at the meals you prepared with love. Mealtimes can become a battle. However, let’s explore this issue from a different perspective – one that views picky eating as a self-protective behaviour rather than a mere fussiness, refusal to eat or poor behaviour.

“I do not describe children as “refusing”.  I describe them as communicating something to us and we, as their caring grownups, need to play detective and try hard to understand why they are not YET able to eat that food.  I think when a child is not taking the food we offer, there is a reason.”

Marcia Dunn Klein

Understanding Picky Eating:

Although picky eating is common in toddlers and the preschool years, we often think of it as just a phase and that this too will pass but for some, the battle doesn’t stop.  If we can understand the underlying reasons behind picky eating, we can help children become better eaters by approaching mealtimes with compassion. 

What if I was to serve you a plate of cooked grasshoppers to eat? Marcia Dunn Klein, founder of the Get Permission Institute, faced this dilemma and it helped her understanding of picky eating. Watch her story! Would you do it? Would you have thoughts or feelings or an instantaneous gag at the thought of eating grasshoppers? What if broccoli or peas or refried beans are just like eating grasshoppers for your child?

The Fear of the Unknown:

Imagine yourself in a child’s shoes – the world is vast and new, and every day brings unfamiliar experiences. New foods can be especially intimidating for children who rely heavily on routine and familiarity for a sense of security. Picky eating might be their way of protecting themselves from potential harm or discomfort. By sticking to foods they know, they create a safe haven in a world full of unknowns.

Sense of Control:

Children often feel like they have little control over their lives, which can be overwhelming. Picky eating is one area where they can exercise some autonomy. Deciding what goes into their mouths allows them to assert themselves in a small but significant way. It’s important for us, as parents, to respect their autonomy while gently encouraging them to explore new foods at their own pace.

Sensory Sensitivities:

Some children have heightened senses, and certain tastes, textures, or smells may be too intense for them. What seems like a simple broccoli floret to us might be an overpowering assault on their senses. Picky eating may, therefore, be a response to sensory sensitivities, as children strive to avoid discomfort or unpleasant experiences.

Emotional Connection with Food:

Food is not merely a source of nutrition; it can also hold emotional significance. Children may associate specific foods with comfort, love, or happy memories. Conversely, they might have experienced negative associations with certain foods, leading them to avoid these items altogether. Understanding these emotional connections can help us address picky eating with empathy and sensitivity.

“Before asking what is wrong with your picky eater, Ask what is it about the food that is wrong”

Dr Kay Toomey

How our past shapes our food choices today?

Consider your own challenges with specific foods and the memories around your experiences with them. Do you have food that you still struggle to eat or smell or even have in the house? The big one for me is peanut butter. I can just bring myself to make my nieces a peanut butter sandwich at their home but I do not have peanut butter at my home.

As a child, I endured long dining sessions, struggling with corned beef and being forced to finish my plate. Corned beef would get stuck, and I’d swallow peas whole due to taste and texture dislike.

Just like children with picky eating, our past experiences with food continue to influence our present food choices. These memories, whether positive or challenging, play a significant role in shaping our relationship with food. They can influence our willingness to try new foods, our comfort with diverse cuisines, and even our inclination towards specific flavours and textures.

Children who feel pressured or forced to eat certain foods they dislike may develop aversions that persist into adulthood. However, by adopting a compassionate approach to picky eating, we can create a safe and positive environment during mealtimes. Allowing children to explore and interact with food without pressure enables them to develop healthier attitudes towards eating. By understanding how early experiences with food can shape our lifelong preferences, we can strive to foster a positive and nourishing relationship with food in children.

“To find mealtime peace, we ask parents to step back and consider what would it take to have a peaceful mealtime for your family or what would you need to do to find mealtime peace today, now? Can you imagine what a mealtime would look like with no stress, no anger, no pressure, no take a bite

Marcia Dunn Klein

Nurturing Healthy Eating: From Exploration to Enjoyment

Approaching picky eating with a compassionate lens doesn’t mean we give up on encouraging healthy eating habits. Instead, we can use strategies to gently guide our children towards more balanced nutritious food without the battle. Encouraging healthy eating habits in children goes beyond the dinner table. Here are some practical and fun ways to foster a positive relationship with food:

  • Explore Away from the Table: Interact with food especially new foods outside of mealtimes. Let them put the food into the trolley at the shops, help unpack groceries together, play with real food while playing shop or use food in creative play activities.
  • Grow Your Own Edible Garden: Cultivate a love for fresh produce by having your own edible garden. Let children participate in planting, watering, and picking vegetables and fruits.
  • Involve in Meal Preparation: Encourage kids to take part in meal preparation. Let them be hands-on with simple tasks like mixing ingredients or setting the table.
  • Create Relaxed Mealtimes: A comfortable mealtime atmosphere allows children to explore food at their own pace with no pressure to try, take a bite or eat food. When we fight and argue before and during meals we increase adrenalin and decrease appetite.
  • Offer Variety and Flexibility: At mealtimes, ensure there’s always something on their plate that they enjoy. This doesn’t mean always serving ice cream but having a familiar and preferred food alongside new dishes.
  • Family-Style Meals: Share meals family-style with food served in bowls for everyone to serve themselves. Create a relaxed atmosphere with no pressure to eat specific foods.
  • Lead by Example: Be a role model for adventurous eating. Demonstrate trying new foods, even if you might not eat them regularly.
  • Embrace Small Steps: According to Kay Toomey who developed the SOS approach, there are 32 steps to eating. Encourage your child to interact with food gradually, starting with being present in the same room and table to touching, smelling, and eventually tasting.
  • Patience in Trying New Foods: It can take up to 20 tries for a child to accept a new food. Be patient and persistent, and avoid pressuring them to eat something they are not ready for.
  • Celebrate Small Victories: When your child interacts with a new food, takes a bite of a new food or willingly tries something different, celebrate their efforts and praise their bravery.

By creating positive and enjoyable experiences around food, children can develop healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime. Remember, it’s about the journey of exploration and delight, not just eating.

The Solution:

As parents, we want our children to enjoy meals and eat varied and nutritious foods.  By viewing children’s picky eating as a self-protective behaviour we can rethink our approach to meal times with empathy and understanding.  As we take the focus off eating food and support our children to explore food we create a nurturing environment that fosters a healthy food relationship.  Each child is unique and with love, compassion and patience we can help develop a healthy relationship with food that will stay with them throughout their lives.

If you need help with picky eating then give us a call and let’s chat so we can restore peaceful mealtimes.

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