Picky Eaters: Dispelling the Myth

By: Stacy Kennedy, MPH, RD, CSO, LDN; Reboot Nutritionist

1.) Has the definition of “Picky Eater” become exaggerated?  I seem to hear it any time a child/toddler to ten years old doesn’t finish his meal. 

It seems as though the term “Picky Eater” which used to refer to a child acting outside the normal expectations of behaviour is often used whenever a child doesn’t want to eat something, finish everything on their plate or expresses their dislike of a particular food.   There’s a balance or fine line; it’s important to set boundaries around eating but it’s also essential for lifelong health that children are allowed to express their likes, dislikes, and feeling of hunger and fullness even when it doesn’t align with our predetermined plans, ideals or goals.

2.) What is the best way for us to keep our cool as a mom? It certainly can be frustrating when your child pushes his/her food around the plate.

As a mom, I know it’s certainly easier said than done!  Patience and persistence are key but often challenging especially at the end of a long day when we are depleted.  Technically it’s the parent’s job to provide healthy food choices on a proper schedule and the child’s job to determine how much to eat.  Babies are born with the innate ability to ask for food when they’re hungry and stop eating when they’re full.  The cry of my hungry baby would hit me right in my gut and nothing could stop me from nursing him!

It’s often tempting to ask your child or even a baby to “just finish it” – drink the remaining sips in the bottle, eat the last few spoonfuls of applesauce on the plate, or those last bites of chicken or broccoli.  If your child eats everything you may feel a sense of satisfaction that they got “enough” to grow or in a practical way there isn’t any waste or clean-up is easier.

In times past, when food was more scarce or resources to buy food were more limited, everyone was encouraged to be what my grandmother called a “member of the clean plate club.”  A nice way of saying you had better eat everything we worked hard to give to you.  This type of external cue for fullness actually backfired in our culture of abundance and variety.  We have become so disconnected from our internal or genuine hunger and fullness or satiety cues  while at the same time we are surrounded by cheap, high calorie, nutrient poor readily available and incredibly abundant food; it’s no wonder obesity is rampant.

3.) Any tips for getting some variety into a “picky eaters” diet?

 It can take 15 – 20 exposures before a child will try a new food; so don’t give up!  Modelling healthy eating or “being the change” can speak much louder than words.  Children who are routinely exposed to fruits and vegetables will choose to eat more of them as they grow up, even if they’re not eating all of them or even any of them at a given meal.  One meal is just one moment in time and picking your battles is key to encouraging healthy eating for a long term healthy lifestyle.

One tip is to eat buffet style.  Put all the meal options on the table and allow your child to serve themselves. Yyounger children will need some help and even older children may need a reminder to grab some veggies for their plate, but giving them some freedom to eat more or less of what their body is asking for can help.  Since everything you’ll be offering is a healthy choice, they can’t go wrong!  You can also engage in a conversation about proportion of pasta to broccoli or eating the rainbow – are all the colors on the table represented on their plate?

4.) I often see what seems to be a viscous cycle of kids not eating their meal and then they’re hungry shortly after and asking for snacks.  What is your advice on that? Doesn’t it perpetuate the issue?

Part of setting boundaries is backing it up with enforcement.  When it’s time to eat, it’s time to eat.  As long as you have considered the child’s schedule for the day and are being reasonable, for example, offered breakfast at 7:30 am, perhaps a light snack at 10 am and now lunch at 12:30 pm it is important to stick to this schedule.  If your child declines lunch at 12:30 but is asking for a snack at 1:30 pm it would be best to let them experience feeling hungry and wait until the next scheduled eating time such as a piece of fruit at 3:30 pm before dinner at 6pm.  They won’t starve to death or suffer from malnutrition; kids are really resilient!  Having them respect you and the eating boundaries you have set is far more important than filling their belly in that moment.

Another issue I’ve seen with parents is frustration around their child only being willing to eat processed foods, fast food or junk foods.  For example, my friend said to me one day, “My boyfriend’s six year old daughter will only eat McDonalds.”   As difficult as it may be, ultimately it’s the parent or an adult who is purchasing these foods for their children and it’s their place to stand firm and set boundaries on how often these foods can be consumed.  Once children are out of the house with their own money it’s harder to have that level of influence, but while they are young and still getting all of their food from their parent or caregiver, setting strict boundaries is absolutely within reach and important.

5.) At what age does it get easier?

There are unique challenges for feeding children of all ages from newborn through adolescence.  In terms of the type of foods, usually likes and dislikes grow and change with our children as they age. As a mom of an 8 and 3 year old, I can say from personal experience that it does get easier.  Even with my 3 year old son Dillon, who has a number of food allergies, eating out has become much easier.  I think in some ways because he has to be so careful with what he eats and we’ve worked hard to link his eating with how his belly feels that his strict boundaries necessitated for health have benefitted him in terms of his overall eating behavior.  In other words, he’s a “great eater” which is pretty rare for kids with allergies who are understandably fearful and concerned about trying new foods.  It’s so cute when each time he sees a new food he asks first in his little voice, “can I eat this?”  or “does this have milk in it?”

Dillon’s feeding world consists of very strict boundaries, but within those boundaries he has tremendous freedom.   I’m learning from him that this is what the textbooks I studied all those years ago, long before I had children, were trying to convey.  As parents we need to set boundaries for our kids; even if they don’t seem to like it in the moment it is a critical part of showing we care for them in the long run.  These boundaries aren’t just about curfew, getting homework done, bathing, saying please and thank you, or being kind to others.  Boundaries we need to set as parents also include when to eat and what we foods they can choose from, but children must be able to have a place to figure out how hungry or full they are in the moment, how much to eat at any given time based on their own internal cues, and what they like or don’t like in terms of taste, texture and temperature.  Without this exploration they may end up being so disconnected from their internal regulatory systems that when we aren’t around anymore to tell them exactly what and how much to eat, they will get these cues from the outside world like TV commercials, billboards and peers.

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Stacy Kennedy, MPH, RD, CSO, LDN; Reboot Nutritionist

Stacy is a Board Certified Specialist in Oncology Nutrition and an Integrative Nutritionist. She consults for various companies, focusing on health, wellness and innovative strategies to help increase individual’s fruit and vegetable intake. Stacy is an American College of Sports Medicine Certified Health Fitness Specialist; she holds a BS degree in Dietetics from Indiana University, completed her dietetic internship at Massachusetts General Hospital, and earned a Masters in Public Health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a Senior Clinical Nutritionist at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute/Brigham & Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School teaching affiliates, in Boston, MA, with more than 20 years of experience. Stacy created and now serves as project manager and lead writer for nutrition services content on the Dana Farber website and the affiliated, nationally recognized nutrition app. Stacy is regularly featured on TV, radio, print and social media on behalf of Dana Farber and other organizations. Together with her husband, Dr. Russell Kennedy PsyD, they have a private practice, Wellness Guides, LLC. Stacy is an adjunct professor in Wellness and Health Coaching at William James College, currently teaching a graduate course in Health Coaching. Stacy is featured in the award winning documentary films, “Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead” and “Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead 2,” and serves on the Reboot with Joe Medical Advisory Board. Stacy lives in Wellesley with her husband, two sons and three dogs. She enjoys cooking, yoga, hiking and spending time with friends and family. Stacy is also one of the nutritionists who runs our Guided Reboot programs.

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