This is Day 7 in the series: 31 days on Living with ADHD, Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder: What We Have Tried, What Has Worked, What Hasn’t Worked, and Never Giving Up.
I Have Created a Picky Eating Monster!?!
If our children are picky eaters it is so tempting to feel like we are to blame. Let me put your fears to rest! When the twins came along I learned picky eating has a lot more to do with a child’s temperament and a lot less to do with us as parents. In almost every respect the twins got identical food choices and yet they are total opposites when it comes to food. Miss Tomboy approaches food with the spirit of adventure. She wants to try EVERYTHING and she is very open minded about liking it. Occasionally she won’t like something but that does’t keep her from trying it again a week later and changing her mind. Miss Princess on the other hand thinks all new foods are suspect and should be avoided at all costs. She is quite content with bread, bananas, and chocolate (don’t tell her but I think I too could live on bread, bananas, and chocolate). Mr Rockstar is in a category all to his own. He tends to be ok trying new foods but there are certain foods that trigger an immediate gag reflex due to the texture.
Do You Have a Picky Eater or Problem Feeder?
First you need to identify is your child just a picky eater or are they a problem feeder. In a blog post by Occupational Therapist Susan L. Roberts on 100 Days of Real Food.com she covers the differences between picky eaters and problem feeders. I guess you could say I am fortunate (?!?) to have an adventurous eater, a picky eater and a problem feeder so I can relate to her definitions!
All children (even Miss Tomboy) go through periods starting at about age 2 when they are pickier and prefer only a few familiar foods. With a problem feeder though their list of acceptable foods just gets shorter and shorter. Picky eaters will eventually go back to foods they ate and accepted in the past while problem feeders won’t. Once a problem feeder has rejected a food it stays rejected.
Does your child frequently gag on food? Mr Rockstar would try new foods when he was little but depending on the texture he would gag on it. For him it was an unacceptable texture and this created a negative experience which over time made him more wary of trying new foods. Miss Princess when trying a new food might spit it out but she has never gagged on a food. Another clue, if you child gags when watching other kids eat a disliked food then it is likely they are a problem eater. One exception to the gagging rule is if food has become a major battle in your household you child may have learned a gagging behavior without it necessarily being a texture issue.
SO why does it matter whether your child is a picky eater or a problem feeder:
Being a picky eater is normal and there are straightforward things you can do to help your child. Being a problem feeder is an indication that some bigger problem is going on and it is manifesting as strong food preferences. Some possible reasons for a problem feeder are:
- Food Sensitivities – This is not necessarily a food allergy but rather foods that may irritate their stomach or cause digestive issues.
- Gastrointestinal inflammation such as irritable bowel syndrome or reflux
- Problems with coordinating breathing and swallowing
- Sensory Integration Disorder
- Mouth Breathing
- Nutritional Deficiencies
From personal experience, Mr Rockstar was a problem feeder due to sensory issues. Occupational therapy has helped a TON. I let the therapists know which foods he was having problems with at home and then they worked on helping Mr Rockstar accept those textures. For instance he used to gag EVERY TIME he tried mashed potatoes. His OT started having him play with textures similar to mashed potatoes like shaving cream. At first Mr Rockstar had a hard time doing it (he used to cry just watching other kids finger paint) but now he enjoys finger painting with shaving cream. After a while we reintroduced mashed potatoes and found as long as they were drowned in gravy he could tolerate them and even liked them.
It has been a journey for us to learn what works to help our picky eaters. Everyone says you should encourage your kids to at least taste each food on their plate ….but HOW DO YOU DO THAT WHEN THEIR LIPS ARE SHUT TIGHT LIKE A STEEL TRAP? First what didn’t work: saving their plate until the next meal, and next, and next until they finally were starving enough to eat a few bites of the new food. I have a couple friends who use this strategy and it seems to work for them. For us however, Miss Princess and Mr Tomboy would literally go 24 hrs with no food when I would try this. It was miserable. To make it even worse next meal they would again refuse to try the new foods. It just made meal time so negative. Plus essentially forcing them to eat the food didn’t seem like a good long term strategy to help them like eating peas or beans or whatever. I asked our behavioral therapist about this strategy and she said creating this huge negative event around food was a good way to mess up their eating. She was especially concerned about Miss Princess because she is so small and so picky. She has seen children that would refuse to eat anything after too much of these type of food battles, they just give up on eating, and then you really have a mess on your hands. Between her advice and reading the book French Kids Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters I came up with a strategy this summer that has worked for us. In her book French Kids Eat Everything, Karen Le Billon has what she calls the French Food Rules:
Before we instituted the French Food Rules in our house. Miss Princess would have a meltdown if I bought the wrong brand of frozen processed chicken nuggets or vanilla yogurt. When we started the the French Food Rules, we had a few rough days but the kids adjusted surprisingly quickly. What helped us the most:
- Cutting out snacking
- Eating dinner with candle light and calming music (the same cd each night) provided some ambience to dinner. Kids love fire and it helped them want to stay seated at the dinner table and draw us together around the table.
- I tried to always have something on their plate they would eat a little of and then if they wanted more bread, for example, they would have to try a bite of chicken or peas. I did usually require they swallow the bite for it to count.
- Reminding them “You Don’t Have to Like It But You Do Have To Try It” and then thanking them for trying even if they spit it out helped. Miss Princess went to bed hungry a few nights but she did become a lot more willing to try new food!
- Keep preparing the same food in different ways. Once I served broccoli with a dash of sesame oil on it and ALL the kids loved it. Now broccoli is one of their favorite vegetables.
- Never assume they won’t like something. I have been shocked at the strong flavors the children have liked. Kids are all different and you never know what they will enjoy. Our kids actually like most spicy foods.
We made a good bit of progress over the summer following the French Food Rules but I still gave in more than I should. Then early fall we decided to try an Elimination Diet to see if it helped Mr Rockstar at all. We all did the diet together. I was SHOCKED at how much more accepting of new foods they all became and how much more fresh fruit and veggies they consumed. They all LOVE mustard now and we have been able to completely eliminate ketchup and sweet dipping sauces from the house. I think taking away virtually all familiar foods for a time forced them to try new foods. I’ll admit the first three days were miserable but then the kids all started eating. Even though our elimination diet is over, they all have continued to be better eaters. Miss Princess even ate meatballs the other night and is doing great at trying a bite of everything on her plate.
Research has shown that “you’ll like a new or previously hated flavor if you’re repeatedly exposed to it — studies suggest that it takes 10 to 15 exposures.”. This means if you can get your child to taste new foods you are winning the war on picky eating. The first couple times I put a new food in front of my kids I am happy if they just lick it. Weird I know but it has worked for us. Miss Princess will barely look at a new food the first time, the third time we usually can get her to lick it, the sixth time she take a bite or two and spits it out, the tenth time she finally decides she loves it and eats more than her brother.
Karen Le Billon has a Toddler Taste Training program on her blog. She states that children don’t learn to love healthy food by accident. They need to be taught. Her training program is basically a curriculum of recipes and fun games to introduce new healthy foods to your children.
What have you found to be the most useful for your picky eaters?