Picky Eaters - Feeding Kids During The Crisis

covid food choices & feeding immune health parenting

A lot of parents in our community have kids they'd consider to be picky eaters. Last week I took our community into my kitchen to show them some of the things I'm doing with food right now to keep our bodies and minds healthy (you can read a summary here or watch the video replay in our group here). 

But I'm also aware that amidst all this talk of immune boosting and nourishment, when your child is addicted to sugar and carbs and only eats 4 foods, all of which are white and not the healthiest and throws all the healthy stuff on the floor, another layer of stress is added to this already stressful situation. 

So last week I did a Facebook Live in our community to address this and in this blog post I'll summarize what I talked about.

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First off, understand that picky eating is a behavior.

Like any behavior, there is something triggering it. There is a reason (sometimes several reasons) why your child is being selective with food. And it's not usually because they want to push your buttons! (though sometimes that does play a part).

If there's a mismatch between the cause and the strategy you're using, you'll constantly feel like you're banging your head against the wall. 

Here are a few examples...

  • If your child's addiction to carbohydrates turns out to be because they have a proliferation of yeast growing in their gut (which you can test for using stool or urine), your positive reinforcement and stickers are not going to get them to eat more vegetables, and taking sugar away is likely going to result in a tantrum;
  • If it turns out your child's refusal to eat meat is because they are not digesting protein well, then your insistence that they're just being fussy is just going to make them angry because who wants to eat food that makes them nauseous?;
  • If the root of the issue is anxiety or a need for control, insisting that your child finish what's on their plate or they get a "time out" is going to backfire.

See what I mean? If the cause and the solution don't match up you're going to get super frustrated.

So my approach to helping parents expand their child's acceptance of food is to dig with them and figure out what's at the root for them, so they can match their resolution strategy to the cause. 

You can read more about potential contributors to picky eating behavior here

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In this particular crisis, here are a few things to think about if you have a picky eater... 

We have a potential opportunity here

Ultimately the message we want to convey to our kids is that what they eat impacts their mental and physical health. If we can do that, they will be better equipped to make healthy decisions when it comes time for them to take on that job. 

I'm hearing from some of my clients that their picky eaters are actually willing to try some new foods now because they want to be healthy and are anxious about getting sick. I've spoken in other Facebook Lives about managing our children's anxiety (as well as our own), and I caution against going too far using their anxiety as a strategy to get them to eat. But I offer it as something to think about and use gently if you feel it will help your child feel more calm and in control and nourish themselves better.

Stay open to possibility

I always encourage parents to shift their thinking and language around their picky eater in a way that keeps the door open to possibility. Your child is growing and evolving and so is their pallette. If you find yourself saying things like, "he'll never eat that", while I'm sure you're basing that on past experience, consider changing your language to, "he isn't liking that right now".

Keep the door open to possibility and keep trying. Our kids are full of surprises. 

I use this strategy a lot with my own picky eater. When he refuses something I say, "you don't like that yet?" and I keep trying. I also make sure to call out his brothers when they say, "you're so picky!!". He's not picky. He's just not liking that right now. We'll try again another day. 

Yes, this does take a ridiculous amount of patience! But the approach keeps the tone and energy positive and the door open, which is all important.

Remember what doesn’t work

One thing we know doesn't ever work with picky eaters is when we panic in front of them. Our kids are super-absorbers. They feel our stress, sometimes even before we do. If we are stressed about their food behavior, tension quickly mounts and things generally get worse rather than better.

We need to find ways to keep our stress about their eating in check so when they refuse food we keep from spiralling into panic. 

Controlling our nervous systems is a major challenge right now. Some things I do to keep our mealtimes calm: take a breath, walk away, focus on gratitude and positivity. 

Keep trying. We can't let our children's behavior trigger us into panic. Ever, but especially now.

Edge Work.

Back when I was a teacher facilitating outdoor education experiences, we were hyper focused on expanding comfort zones. We did something called, "edge work" and I have transferred that work into the picky eating situation. Here's how it works...

Think about your child's comfort zone as a circle. They are in the middle, being comfortable with their pasta and bread. Way outside the circle is where we want them to be - eating sauerkraut and salad and nourishing soup. But if we lifted them up and placed them out in the land of kraut, salad and soup like we want to, they'd likely panic, retreat, and close the doors to possibility. It’s too far a leap for them. 

Where we work is on the edge and slightly to the inside of the circle. We keep one foot in safety while nudging them into something new.

One way to think about this when it comes to food is to consider all the senses. A new food looks different, smells different, tastes different, has a different texture. How might we take a food that is in their comfort zone and change only one aspect of it at a time rather than all of it at once? Edge work. 

Keep yourself healthy & strong 

We have a tendency to put our own health on the backburner, especially when we're stressed. It's interesting to me that my main fear right now is that I will get sick and be unable to care for my kids; not that they will get sick. Thankfully, it still seems that kids are doing quite well overall. 

When our kids get picky with food, we tend to adapt our own eating to theirs. Check yourself to be sure you’re not doing this. 

Have you stopped buying certain healthy foods because your kids “won't eat them”? Are you only making and eating certain meals you know your child will eat? 

You need optimal nourishment right now. So go watch the LIVE I did on this (or read the summary) and apply it all to yourself even if your child won't eat any of it (links are down below). Keep yourself well nourished.

Change your thinking about your picky eating and their health.

I'm hearing a lot of parents stress about their kids being Immune Compromised because they're not eating well. That's a super scary thought and it’s going to wear on your nerves! 

The way you think and the words you use right now are very important to the health of your nervous system (which, don't forget, controls your immune system to a large extent). So try not to think that way. Focus on what they will eat and read the next point... 

Use supplements if you need them. 

Picky eating is a great time to use supplements to fill nutritional gaps. That's what they're for. I don't believe you can out-supplement a bad diet in the long term, but supplements can be incredibly helpful for getting through stressful periods with resilience intact and for calming that mama-panic by making sure the nutritional bases are covered. You can read more on supplements for children here. 

Bottom line is this...

Your child is the same child now as they were 3 weeks ago, but we're all under more stress than before. What they need now is the same as what they've always needed (summarized here). 

Our main challenge has become how to weather this extra stress so our bodies and minds come out the other side, hopefully more resilient than ever. 

You've likely never been presented with a time like this where you have complete control over your child's diet - no playdates, no school events, no birthday parties. Of course this depends on your situation, but you might have an opportunity here to dig into the roots of your child's picky behavior. 

If you need support, I'm here to help.

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Supporting Resources:

~ Contributors to picky eating (blog post)

~ Picky eating Infographic

~ Facebook live on strategies

~ Practical Parent’s Guide To Feeding Picky Eaters e-course

 ~ What I’m feeding my family summary blog post



About Jess Sherman, FDN-P, M.Ed, R.H.N

Jess is a Functional Diagnostic Nutrition® Practitioner, Registered Holistic Nutritionist and a trauma-sensitive Family Health Educator specializing in brain health & resilience for kids. She is also a teacher, with a Master's degree in education. Her Calm & Clear Kids introductory course, her Amino Acids (with kids!) Quickstart program, and her signature Resilience Roadmap,  along with her book Raising Resilience, have helped families in at least 44 countries improve the lives of their children with learning differences, anxiety, ADHD, and mood disorders and reduce their reliance on medication. She is the 2019 recipient of the CSNNAA award for Clinical Excellence for her work with families, and she continues to bring an understanding of the 5 Core Needs For Resilient Health to the mainstream conversation about children’s mental health, learning, and overall resilience through her blog, courses, workshops and as a contributor to print and online magazines. 

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The content on this website and in the guides and courses offered here is meant to provide information so that parents can make informed decisions and discuss these issue with their health care teams. It is not intended as, nor should it be considered a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or individualized care.