Picky Eaters - Is it Normal? Is it OK?

Is it normal?

Young picky eaters are a common experience, but only in recent years has it become seen as normal. With our diet shifting towards modernised versions of food, through added flavourings, added sugars and added salts, our young ones are experiencing very different flavours on their taste buds, heavy in sweet and salt and reduced bitter and sour. We can all reflect on our growing up, and our parents encouraging us to eat different foods, many of us were the “if it is green, it's bad” type! We must remember that as we grow, so do our tastebuds, new flavours and textures are simply that, NEW! We have 10% new tastebuds EVERYDAY! Watch a child learning to walk, they are hesitant, cautious and careful – they don't start running straight away! Treating your child's tastebuds in the same way will ensure they are more likely to try new things, but remember, you can't expect them to love it straight away, let them crawl before they walk.

Is it ok?

Picky eating children are very typical and you are not alone in this, parents around the world are challenged by it every single day! It is important to realise however that whilst common, it doesn't make it healthy. There are some issues that make picky eating more than a simple problem. Picky eating can cause:

  • Incredible stress for parents as they try EVERYTHING to have their child eat a balanced diet and try to accommodate multiple different likes/dislikes in the family;

  • Ongoing diet-based psychological issues caused by 'food disciplining' from parents and guardians, including guilt and resentment alongside deeper more challenging body and health issues. Signs of eating disorders are now common in 8-9yr olds!;

  • Poor nutrition, if a child isn't accessing a wide range of macro and micro nutrients, there can be issues related to brain and body development.

Picky eating will fade over time if we get down to the root problem at its deepest layer. This could be due to many factors. (I explore that in more depth in my events and programs if you need more detail.) Through the right encouragement you can help your child experience a wide variety of flavours and textures (and the added bonus of complete nutrition of the macro and micro nutrients for the their growing body).

One Simple Way to Combat Pickiness

One simple method to try and introduce to your picky eater is the monkey plate – who doesn't want to be a monkey? You may already be doing a version of this naturally, but there are a few key differences between it working a treat and not working at all.

Key #1: Monkey Plates are a way to encourage discovery and play with food, and introduce new flavours in isolation. Monkey Plates allow children to snack on their favourite foods alongside new foods, creating familiarity with both visual and tactile introduction. Encourage them to use their hands and let them play as much as you can allow. A favourite way we have is to have one night a week that is for "plate art" and the meal is served in monkey-plate-style so that they can pick and choose different colours and shapes to "build a pirate ship"; "build a bedroom"; "build a monster-face"; "build a butterfly" etc. The focus is more about the activity and less about 'Johnny trying green beans'. Even if he just plays with them for the next 3 months in a positive environment, eventually he will try one and eventually he will like one - there is a bit more to this but this should get you off to a great start!

Key #2: Consistency is the most important aspect of it all. If they choose not to eat what is on their monkey plate assure them that this is perfectly ok but it does mean that there are no more foods or beverages (other than water) allowed until the next proper meal time (not morning or afternoon tea snacks). This way you have empowered them with choice and with the clear understanding of what that means. Then it is very important to ask them to explain back to you what you just told them so everyone is perfectly clear on the ground rules. 

 Key #3 Ensure you don't FORCE the eating of the food but rather use a "When & Then" approach.  With a positive tone of voice, ZERO sign of disappointment, and commitment to the patience it may take for them to take action, let them know that WHEN they have their one try-bite THEN they will be able to go and read their favourite story-book with Dad (for example). This is very different to "if you don't take at least one bite of that carrot Johnny, Dad won't read you a book tonight".  The "try-bite" strategy works on the palette needing approximately 20 tastes of something before it likes it. You can create experience-based reward charts to positively introduce 20+ new foods in one year alone!

Some great Monkey Plate options include:

  • Vege sticks (e.g. carrots, zucchini, cucumber, capsicum, mushrooms);
  • Tasty dippers (hummus, pesto, mashed roast veges), these are great to make “plain” vege sticks super tasty!;
  • Roasted nut mixes;
  • Basic rice or pasta salads with small bits of some of their favourite things (sm pieces of cheese, sun dried tomatoes, avocado etc.) PLUS a few tiny bits of new foods (zucchini, fresh corn, grated beetroot, olives etc.)
  • Some healthy fats – avocados, organic hard boiled/scramble eggs, salmon/tuna/sardines, brined olives soaked in healthy oils;
  • Some fruit (not too much, otherwise the natural sweet tooth will only eat the banana and leave the rest!);
  • Roasted veggies, now cold;
  • Cherry tomatoes;
  • Healthy crackers, home made is best, otherwise go for a quality natural-ingredient only cracker (watch out for preservative and flavour additives, anything with numbers are to treated with absolute caution).

I hope these 3 keys help you help your picky eater. I would love to go into more depth with you and assist wherever certain strategies seem to not be working quite right in your household. In the meantime, please go unleash the Monkeys and help everyone to have more fun at the dinner table - for everyone's longterm benefit!