I love working with kids when it comes to nutritional therapy. But one thing I've noticed is that the kids who tend to "need" nutritional therapy services the most are often the pickiest of eaters.
Picky eating is classified as a feeding disorder. It is an unwillingness of one (often a child) to eat unfamiliar foods or try new things. Picky eaters tend to have a strong preference to a select few foods. For example, I knew of a child who only ate pasta with fake buttery spread and the Kraft parmesan cheese that comes in the green shaker canister. Eating habits like this often lead to poor dietary variety and a lack of necessary micronutrients, which can be very problematic for developing bodies.
Perhaps you know of a picky eater or two. Perhaps you are one or were one as a child. Or maybe you're raising one. Either way, there are strategies one can implement to get a picky eater to branch out of their comfort food zone.
Children with neurological disorders and developmental delays tend to be pickier eaters. I hear it all the time from their parents that giving into their food preferences is easier than getting them to try new foods. They say it's just not worth the fight. As someone who has taught this population now for well over a decade, I can see their point. It's often not worth the fight. But eventually, if the unwillingness to eat certain foods continues, these children can develop nutritional deficiencies that lead to all sorts of other problems.
A recent study was conducted by researchers from The University of Pennsylvania at the Picky Eater's Clinic associated with the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. The study looked at what happened when parents were trained to act like behavioral therapists to promote long-term improvements in acceptance of new and unfamiliar foods and create positive mealtime experiences for their picky children.
The parents all reported that their child's picky eating was a huge source of stress in their lives. The food groups that the children tended to avoid the most were vegetables and meat. Therefore, just like the girl who ate almost nothing but pasta, these kids were eating an unbalanced amount of carbohydrates. Parents often found themselves making separate meals for their picky eaters and they avoided taking their children out to nice restaurants.
The researchers encouraged a slow introduction of new foods. They did not recommend taking the child out for dinner to unfamiliar restaurants within the first four weeks. Instead, for the first four weeks, parents were told to introduce a few new foods per week by placing them on a separate plate and encouraging the child to just chew and swallow at least one bite. Children were then given a post-meal reward if they chewed and swallowed the new food without putting up a fight. Screen time was the chosen post-meal reward for the majority of the children in the study.
For long-term success, the researchers recommended to the parents that they eventually stop making a separate meal for their picky eaters. A separate meal was never an option for me as a child. I ate what my parents ate or I didn't eat. And the researchers recommend this method after six weeks of introducing new foods. Of course, parents know their children the best. So this recommendation may not work for all after the first six weeks. It's all about trial and error. But eventually, picky eaters can learn to tolerate new foods so that they can eat what their families are eating. This is also beneficial because the consumption of more variety (especially of vegetables) leads to the consumption of more micronutrients. And more micronutrients in the diet can help a child who is becoming deficient in certain nutrients because of their picky eating style.
Do you have a picky eater, or have you dealt with one in the past? What methods worked for you or your child? Sometimes a child will just outgrow being a picky eater. Sometimes peer pressure will get to them. As for the girl who ate nothing but pasta, she outgrew that in her tween years. She's in her early 20's now and enjoys going out to sushi with friends quite often. She also studied abroad in Italy during college and ate much, much more than just pasta while she was there.