How changing what we SAY can change what our Picky Eater will EAT

Picky eating can be so frustrating for us parents. This is a especially the case when our little (and not so little ones’) preferences are unpredictable. We go to all the effort of making something we are sure they’re going to like, we’ve done the family style meal thing, we think we’ve nailed the weekly snacks and then they decide they don’t want a bar of anything we put in front of them!

There can be many causes for food refusal ranging from the normal stage of picky/fussy eating in the toddler years to extreme picky eating that can persist into adolescence and even adulthood. Read my previous blog to identify any concerns –

Thankfully there are also many things we can do that can help make day-to-day mealtimes more enjoyable as well as prevent the normal picky eating phase from snowballing into longer lasting difficulties. One of these things is how we talk to our children about foods. That is, both the foods that they will eat as well as the foods that they are LEARNING to eat.

A key underlying component of how we can change our language is changing our mindset on what’s happening when our children are not eating (or even tolerating in the same room) what we are serving up to them as snacks and meals.

Caution around new foods is in our DNA. It stems back to the caveman era where humans were programmed to be wary of bitter plants to avoid being poisoned or harmed. In addition to these self-protective instincts, our little darlings may be refusing foods for a whole other host of reasons that they may or may not understand. Whichever one (or more) of these reasons it is, if we approach the situation calmly, confidently and from a position of understanding that there could be something more at play than them trying to test our patience (which is definitely how it can feel). Then, we are much more likely to avoid combat and create an enjoyable mealtime for all.

Given this instinctual and evolutionary caution, children can take 12-20+ exposures to a new food to truly decide whether they like it or not. This means that they need time and space to be curious and cautious around these foods up until that point.

If we take this view that our children need multiple exposures to accept certain foods and that they are LEARNING about these foods instead of rejecting them. It can help us to reframe our own thought process and how we see their behaviour e.g. “oh, you’re prodding the broccoli with your fork. You are wondering about how hard this vegatable is” is a very different thought pattern to “You’re messing with your food because you don’t want to eat it”. This also then affects our behaviour and responses as parents e.g. we are much more likely to be able to respond confidently and calmly when we view our children as exploring their food curiously but cautiously.

So why the lack of predictability you ask! Well these 12-20+ exposures don’t happen in a linear fashion towards acceptance. It can depend on: what else has been eaten that day, how the food is cooked, the brand, the temperature, how the food is presented, what it’s offered with. All of these things can affect acceptance…. But, they can also be used to our advantage when we are encouraging eating as part of a stepwise plan! These things are also some of the reasons why our toddlers may reject previously accepted foods!

So now back to changing our language! Once we are approaching our little eaters with calm and confidence, knowing that they are being cautiously curious about foods then we can begin to swap some of the language that we use to help reduce the pressure on them to eat, reduce that caution (reducing pressure helps to increase comfort and then willingness to try) and increase that curiosity.

When we take this approach our children know that we are on THEIR TEAM when it comes to expanding their eating choices. They are much more likely to gradually try (and keep trying) new things when they see us as a mealtime partner who understands that trying new things can be a little scary for them!

Instead of:

➡️Take one more bite
➡️If you eat x then you can have y
➡️Don’t you like it?
➡️Finish your plate
➡️Why are you not eating ….. X?
➡️Just give it a try, you don’t know if you like it or not
➡️Do you like your chicken?
➡️You can’t be full, you’ve hardly eaten!

The above can create unintentional pressure which can heighten a child’s caution sensors and reduce willingness and enjoyment. Children may eat foods in the short-term because they feel pressured to but this is less likely to lead to adventurous eating in the long-term!

Try some of these at your next mealtime:

➡️It feels like a hard vegetable just like… (Insert food child likes) doesn’t it!?
➡️That’s a new taste isn’t it!
➡️Would you like to try it with a small/large fork?
➡️That tastes sweet/sour/juicy
➡️Do you want to save this for later?
➡️I wonder what will happen if we cut/mash/break this food…?
➡️Is your chicken juicy/soft/dry?
➡️What is your tummy telling you? How do you feel?
➡️ Games and conversation that ISN’T about food e.g. 20 questions, what was your most favourite and least favourite part of the day today?

The above help to create an awareness in our children of our understanding and acceptance which helps to increase curiosity and willingness. Children try foods because they WANT to and build confidence towards adventurous eating!

If these steps don’t work for your picky eater do not despair!!! They may simply need a more structured step by step approach and/or have underlying oral motor and/or sensory issues that are making mealtimes more challenging than they would be for our average picky eaters.

If you would like further advice on how to utilise this strategy and/or how to access a stepwise, evidence-based plan from a Specialist Mealtime Therapist – get in touch for a free 15 minute consult! 📞✉️

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