Throughout the years of working with individuals in a therapeutic setting, I have often found that the “therapeutic use of self” is immensely powerful and helpful. The essential concept involves creating a meaningful relationship between the therapist and client using the therapist’s personality, insights, perceptions, and judgements to produce meaningful participation and progress. So basically, I use examples of things that have happened in my life to normalize events or explain to parents why things may be happening with their children.
This week’s fun holiday is Eat Ice Cream for Breakfast. As I was thinking about how I wanted to relate this holiday to pediatric development, I began to think about all the things that I would not eat as a child. Yes, it is true, I was a picky eater.
And I’m not talking about the picky eater that loves tomatoes and burgers but doesn’t like tomatoes ON their burgers. I’m talking about the eater that only has about 5 meals in their repertoire. Looking back, I honestly don’t know how my parents dealt with me. Anytime we went out for dinner I cried and screamed. Anytime something was served for dinner that was not one of my staples, I cried and screamed. There was a lot of crying and screaming.
Here are some facts about me: I didn’t eat a turkey sandwich until I was 14. I didn’t try fish until I was 21. I didn’t try avocado (now one of my favorite foods) until I was 25. I lived on honey nut cheerios, peanut butter, and jelly sandwiches (only strawberry jelly, only on white bread) and Spaghetti-Os. And I was a competitive gymnast during this time; training 3 hours a day 3-4 times a week. So…even though I was not eating the most diverse, healthy diet, I was growing and continuing to thrive developmentally and physically.
As an occupational therapist I work with parents and children on picky eating all the time. Picky eating has an entirely different meaning when working with children on the autism spectrum. Today I am just going to address picky eating among neurotypical children.
First, as a parent your job is to decide:
What food to serve
When the food will be served
Where the food will be served
Your child’s job is to decide:
If they are going to eat
How Much they are going to eat
With all of this in mind, here are some tips on how to deal with a picky eater of your own:
Create a routine/schedule: try to feed your child their meals and snacks around the same time every day. We know that kids love schedules as they provide them with a sense of stability. Serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner around the same time every day, at that same place (kitchen counter, breakfast room table, dining room table). Your child will become use to the routine and fall in line with the expectations.
Prepare one meal for the family: do not become a short order cook. Preparing a separate meal for each child/family member will only reinforce picky eating habits. Your child will be more willing to try new foods if they see everyone else (including older or younger siblings) eating and enjoying the meal.
Avoid distractions: meals should be eaten at a table, away from TVs, electronics, etc. Mealtime is for eating and interacting with the family.
Try not to pressure, praise, reward, trick or punish with food: children are intuitive eaters. They know what they need and when they are done. This is a tricky one for parents…but you need to trust your child. If your child is hungry, they will eat. When they are satiated, they will stop. Try not to pressure your child to eat certain foods on their plate. This may backfire and cause more of a power struggle over food. And try not to make dessert a reward. Dessert is simply a sweet food. It is not something we get if we are good.
Try, try again: don’t worry if your child refuses to eat something the first time you put it on their plate. It can take some kids up to 10 times or more to begin to enjoy a new food. Just keep offering it, in small amounts, at different meals, and even in different recipes. Do not give up!
If you are in any way concerned that your child’s eating habits are impacting their growth and development, then please contact your pediatrician.
But remember this: toddlers in general are picky eaters. They will love one food for months and then suddenly tell you they don’t like it anymore. I ask every parent that comes to me with a picky eater the following questions:
Is your child growing? Is your child thriving? Is your doctor concerned?
If the answers are Yes, Yes, No, then I share about my eating habits as a child and let them know that their child’s preferences are going to continuously change throughout their development. It may be frustrating and annoying, but if they are healthy, try to stay patient and see if you can implement one of the above tips. 😊