Being known as the picky eater dietitian, people expect that I work with toddlers and preschoolers. It’s true, many, if not most, of the families I work with have 2 – 5 year olds. But I also work with parents of school-age picky eaters. These parents thought that picky eating was just a phase that their kids would grow out of. But now their little ones aren’t so little, and they are still picky. Often what sparks these parents to contact me is their child expresses anxiety about social situations because of the food. They don’t want to go to birthday parties and sleep-overs because they are worried that there won’t be anything for them to eat.
The good news is that we certainly can help these kids to become less picky and more confident with food. The bad news is that change is slower at this age than when working with younger kids.
When working with school-age kids my approach is even more individualized than with toddlers and preschoolers because of their more advanced developmental stage. However, the actions in these family’s plans always start in the same place. If you’ve got a school-age child who didn’t grow out of picky eating, here’s where to start.
Challenge School-Age Picky Eater’s Self-Identity
Ford said (I may be paraphrasing a bit here):
“Whether you believe you can, or you believe you can’t, you’re right”.
These kiddos have a self-identity that they are picky; that they don’t try new foods. Therefore, we need to change their self-belief before they’ll be open to trying new foods. One simple, but powerful way to do this is to change how you speak about your child and food. As a caregiver, you are incredibly important for shaping how a child thinks about him- or herself. Stop calling your child “picky” or “fussy”. Stop saying things about food like “you won’t like this” or “I know that you won’t try that”. Yikes, talk about a self-fulfilling prophesy. Instead, say things that open up the possibility of change. Say things that communicate your belief that they will learn to like new foods. Examples include “you don’t like it yet” or “your taste buds change as you get older. You may want to try it again.”
School-Age Picky Eaters: Provide Opportunities to Try New Foods
You likely stopped serving your child new foods long ago because they never ate them and it seemed futile. However, if kids are never served new foods, how are they going to eat new foods? It’s like saying that you won’t take your child to the pool until they know how to swim. Herein lies the rub. Your child won’t learn to swim unless you take them to the pool, many times, and they take swimming lessons. Learning to like new foods works the same way. Kids need to see them and try them many times before they learn to like them. Now you’ve likely been serving your child a different meal from the rest of the family for many years. Suddenly switching to making one meal for the whole family and expecting your child to eat everything isn’t the answer. A successful, and gentle, first step is to use a strategy that I call the share plate. This means serving at least one food in a meal on a plate or in a bowl in the middle of the table from which everyone can serve themselves. Other terms for this are “family style” or “Chinese style”. Encourage everyone in the family, your fussy eater included, to serve themselves from this plate/ bowl if they wish. An example is to serve some cut-up fruit on a share plate at breakfast. This strategy works because it provides your picky eater with an opportunity to try something new if they choose so. But, it doesn’t force them to try it. It also communicates with your actions what I shared above – that you believe that your child will, one day, join your family in enjoying these foods.