Learn what this mother of an extreme picky eater did to help her daughter learn to eat new foods and the surprising trick that made her fast track her progress!
I’ve invited a guest onto the blog with me today. Her name is Heather, she’s a mom and has a daughter, Alexandra, with a history of extreme picky eating. When I met Heather last year, Alexandra had just been sent home from school because she was too ill to participate. Not ill from a virus or an infection. Ill because she’d hardly eaten anything in days.
She was weak and her belly hurt too bad to tolerate sitting in class.
I’m sure you can imagine, Heather was desperate to help her 5 year old overcome picky eating. She joined Mealtime Works, and over the next 6 months, I watched Alexandra’s eating dramatically improve. The steps and strategies Heather followed in class were key to Alexandra’s success, but I noticed Heather had a trick up her sleeve that was improving her eating even more.
That “trick” is what Heather and I want to share with you in this post.
It’s subtle, maybe even a little nuanced, but it gave Alexandra an edge. And, every parent of a picky eater can start using it today.
But, while this trick is valuable and can make a difference for your picky eater, having a plan like Heather did is game changing.
Picky Eating Spiraled Into a Severe Feeding Issue
I believe in the power of example. We can learn so much from what Heather went through, learned, and overcame. I asked Heather to share a glimpse of what Alexandra’s eating used to be like…
In Heather’s words:
Alexandra has always been a picky eater. At 15 months, we started feeding therapy. She was only eating a handful of things occasionally. We used to joke that “one day she’ll try food.” We tried doing sticker charts; five days of eating will get her a toy or frozen yogurt.
Our whole day revolved around getting her to eat anything. We used to take her to Walmart with a sack lunch regularly, because she sometimes like to munch as she people watched. We would blow a few hundred dollars on “kid food,” to see if she just wanted bad food. She often would go days without eating and would get headaches or begin to hallucinating. We saw every specialist we could; we were eventually dismissed by all of them and even kicked out feeding therapy.
Setting the Stage for Her to EAT!
Then Heather started to implement some of the strategies she’d learned in one of our free workshops and she saw Alexandra’s eating start to shift:
Since implementing those strategies, Alexandra began trying a larger variety of foods, we were less stressed at meal times, but we were definitely still worried.
By the time Alexandra was five she was only eating 5-8 foods regularly; any of those foods had to be presented precisely a certain way and under the right conditions. When we vacationed, we had to always eat somewhere that served pizza or sandwiches. It was inconvenient. Finally, we got to the point that she was being sent home from school because she had severe hunger pains and couldn’t focus in class.
It was at this point that Heather took the leap and joined Mealtime Works. I watched Alexandra’s eating begin to improve, because they changed the environment at mealtimes, and got to the root of what was causing her to be a picky eater in the first place.
The Picky Eater Trick That Worked for Her…
Over the next few months, I saw that Alexandra’s eating was improving more quickly than most kids. As an occupational therapist, I was celebrating and excited, but also intrigued.
What was Heather doing?
Alexandra wasn’t just trying foods, I could see in the examples that Heather was sharing that she was curious about food. She wasn’t scared or fearful anymore. It was a dramatic shift.
Once I stepped back and looked at their whole situation, Heather’s extra picky eating trick was simple: she was working with her daughter, not against her.
That might sound a little vague, so let me get specific about what it means…
The Picky Eating Beast That Bring Out the Worst in Us
Picky eating beats parents down. It often brings out the worst in us. Sometimes it turns into battles, fights, and lots of yelling. Other times, it turns into catering to picky eaters and turning a blind eye.
Parents often feel stuck, exhausted, and frustrated at the wasted food and effort of preparing new foods that never get eaten.
When we respond in these ways, we’re trying to control the eating, with our agenda. Except, we can’t (that’s where the frustration comes from). When parents force, beg, bribe, plead, trick, or manipulate food in order to get your child to eat it, they aren’t working with their child.
I teach more about how to avoid this and what to do instead in this free workshop.
It’s understandable, but there is another way.
Working with your child means that you first and foremost understand that your child isn’t a picky eater to make your life miserable or to be difficult. They’re struggling with a picky eater for real reasons.
Eating is truly hard for them.
When parents understand that their child needs help, it opens the door for compassion and closes the one that’s trying to control and manipulate their eating.
Be Careful Not to Miss This Subtle, But Powerful Change
It’s subtle, but this shift in how you think about your child’s eating can have a HUGE impact on their willingness to eat.
At your next meal, think about how you can work with your child, like you’re on the same team battling picky eating, instead of how to take charge of the situation.
With not against.
When I asked Heather if she knew she was wielding this strategy, she said:
I always knew she was struggling, and desperately wanted to help. Mealtime Works helped me recognize the specific ways and causes of her struggles, so I could help her more specifically. There were so many times I would learn something and incidents from even years ago would suddenly made sense.
The program has taught me to see “issues” with eating as a need for specific support, rather than something wrong with my daughter.
I saw Heather lay down expectations of what her daughter was going to eat. She talked to her in a respectful way without trying to work some angle to get her to try a food. Heather was genuinely curious about what was uncomfortable for Alexandra.
She approached Alexandra as a laid-back and caring guide to help show her the way. Because of this she felt it was safe to ask questions about food. To touch, take a lick, and eventually eat those foods.
It was obvious that Alexandra trusted Heather. She wasn’t cautious or guarded because she knew her mom was on her team. She felt confident trying new food because she knew Heather would help her if was a bad experience.
Then She Grabbed the Messy Burger and Ate It
(For the First Time Ever)
As this unfolded at mealtime’s in Heather’s home, she would share these new found foods in our private fb group. As you read these examples of the foods Alexandra started to eat, notice how comfortable she was and Heather’s attitude:
Once we visited her for lunch and I brought the chicken Nuggets she likes from Burger King. I totally forgot to bring a plain burger too. She was still hungry and disappointed. In the past, I probably would have stressed and just given her the rest of her brother’s nuggets and gotten him another lunch afterwards. Whatever I would have chosen, it wouldn’t have given her an opportunity to grow and be positive. Instead, I casually offered her my burger (a messy whopper). She actually loved it!
We used to battle every single morning about clothing. We actually had to figure in more time in preparing for the day because of it. Something always bunches up wrong. Was too tight on her toes, etc. This has not been a problem in MONTHS because of working on her sensory needs, realizing this was associated with her eating, and applying the same “no pressure” rules.
Once we woke up late, and we got breakfast on the go, so we could make it to Jiu Jitsu practice on time… She had donuts and I had a breakfast sandwich. It had sausage, which is a preferred for her, and it also had egg which she adamantly was against. Once she began practice, I was finally able to eat my sandwich after heating it up for the second time. During her water break, she asked me if she could take a bite. She didn’t even ask what it was or investigate it in anyway. I let her take a bite, she liked it, and she came back later for more!
All of our food jags are finally gone! I can tell her “Hey, we’re out of mustard, so there won’t be any in your sandwich today.” She won’t panic, and she’ll give it a try. She might not finish it, but she’ll give a try and not let her stop her from trying sandwiches for another month.
How Your Can Use This Trick to Help Picky Eaters
Let’s get specific now about how you can start working with your child instead of against their picky eating so that you can put it into action today and start seeing the positive results.
#1. Talk with your partner, spouse, or any other caregivers about making a conscious choice to think about your child’s picky eating differently. Make a commitment that whenever you feel frustrated or feel the urge to control the situation that you’ll remember they’re struggling and need your help. Stating this aloud helps hold you accountable. It also makes trying foods more likely when all adults are responding to a child in the same way.
#2. Expose your child to new foods without any expectations. Think about how you’d offer food to a friend that had never tried a hamburger. Be casual, and instead of hoping your child is going to try the food, watch how they re-act. If they react poorly, don’t get upset. Act like it’s no big deal and redirect he conversation. Your picky eater will note that you didn’t try to force them or become aggravated.
This reinforces that you’re on their team.
#3. Focus on simple food education by plainly stating the properties and textures of food to help your child understand the food better. Most picky eaters are scared to try new foods because of how they’ll taste or feel. When you can help them fill in that gap of information, without overwhelming them, they feel more secure and likely to try a new food.
The conversation might go something like, “Oh, we’re making hamburgers. You can mix in the seasonings. When they’re cooked, they’re a little bit squishy and have similar taste to meatballs, but without any sauce.”
Or, “These carrots are raw, which means they’re really crunchy like chips or crackers. They’re a tiny bit sweet like candy, but don’t have a very big taste.”
Always try to relate the new food back to a food their familiar with. Approach these conversations like you’re talking to a friend. A picky eater knows a mile away when you’re trying to get them to try something.
Those are 3 quick ways to use this “trick” to help your child trust you and begin to eat more, just like Heather did with Alexandra. Heather will be joining me for a special facebook live at 2:30 EST on 4/29 to talk more about how she got on her daughter’s team. Click here to join us. (Replay will be available after it runs live).
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 15 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.