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Selective Eating in Children: What to Do (and Not Do)

Of all the frustrations involved in parenting, feeding a child has to rank pretty high on the list. As a dietitian, some of the concerns I’ve heard include:

“I feel like my child isn’t eating enough to grow properly.”

“They’ll only eat four foods, and I don’t know why.”

“Food textures are a really big deal to my kid; how do I get them to try new things?”

“My child only eats foods that are white or beige.”

The first thing I tell parents with these types of concerns is that they’re very common. Parents may feel guilt about the possibility that they’ve done something “wrong” to make their child eat in this way, and often assume that their child is the odd eater amongst the rest of the “normal” eaters in the child’s age group.

The reality is that a child is just as likely to be picky as not, and it probably has little to do with the parent. The question is, should you be doing something about it?

Ellyn Satter is generally considered to be the foremost expert on how best to feed children. Here’s a link to her website. Her philosophy, one that I share, is that the caregiver and child each have certain responsibilities when it comes to feeding the child. Those responsibilities vary a bit depending on the age group, but I get the majority of my questions about feeding toddlers through adolescents. For this age group, here’s the basic approach:

  • The parent is responsible for what foods are being served, when feeding times occur, and where food is eaten.

  • The child is responsible for choosing how much to eat and, scariest of all, whether to eat at all.

It’s the parent’s job to provide regular meals and to ensure that those meals are nutritionally adequate. They also determine when and where those meals occur. In essence, parents are the gatekeepers to food for the child. It’s important to avoid the practice of becoming a “short-order cook” for your child; while you can certainly be aware of your child’s preferences, they should not have final say on what’s served. A child may not eat a new food the first, second, or even seventh time it’s served, but if it’s part of the rest of the family’s eating pattern you should keep offering it. This is especially true of nutrient-rich foods like fruits and vegetables, which a child may be skeptical of initially due to the variety of new textures and colors.

What’s difficult for many parents, however, is to let go of the responsibility of directing their child how much and whether to eat. So many of us were raised with the expectation to finish the plate or bowl of food that was provided for us, regardless of internal hunger and fullness cues. These prompts to “clean your plate” override the natural intuitive eating instincts that all of us were born with and are likely to contribute to continued patterns of overeating later in life. Fostering these instincts, rather than ignoring them, is an important aspect of this approach to feeding children.

What about more extreme cases of selective eating? The children whose list of “safe” foods could fit on a postage stamp? What to do depends on a few variables.

The first question to ask is whether growth and development are being affected. A conversation with the family pediatrician to review growth charts will reveal if there’s a problem.

If growth is being affected, it’s certainly reasonable to consider a new approach and you should consult the pediatrician – and maybe a dietitian as well – for some direction. Clinical-level disordered eating in children is a problem that requires a shift from the recommended division of feeding responsibilities.

If the growth pattern and development appear normal, you may need to accept that there may not be a problem at all, even if the eating pattern doesn’t seem “normal.” This excellent blog post from pediatrician Julie O’Toole explains that a parent’s “instinctive desire for normalcy drives a lot of suffering. And while we are prepared to accept deviation from the mean in some things (e.g. ‘smarter than average’, ‘more talented than others’, ‘higher income than average’) we seem to agonize over eating behavior that is ‘not normal” or ‘not what the average child does’.” I’d encourage you to read through the entire linked post if you relate to this.

As previously mentioned, the problem of selective or picky eating in children is extremely common. There are lots of great resources on the subject, some more humorous than others. Utilizing some of the strategies in this post may help alleviate some of the pressure you feel to help your child eat “normally”.

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