If you parent a picky eater it’s tempting to think you have to fix the food.  You don’t. You have to fix your kid.

Fix is probably too strong a word, but you get my point.  Instead of focusing on how to find the perfect food, the one your picky eater will tolerate, figure out how to help your picky eater tolerate more foods.

That was the gist of my last post Teaching Your Way Out of  Picky Eating Problem with Sensory Education.  Children with sensory issues need to learn how to cope with food stimuli that trigger them.

A lot of picky eaters are picky because they are highly sensitive to variations in taste and texture.  (This makes them particularly vulnerable to problems with fruits and vegetables, which change as they become ripe and then start to rot.)

But sensory sensitivity isn’t the only characteristic trait that makes kids prone to becoming picky eaters.  Some kids are shy.  Others are emotional.

Many kids are anxious.

One way to understand your picky eater is this: Kids who are anxious become picky eaters, in part, as a way to manage their anxiety.

And, the more anxiety a child experiences, the more committed she’ll be to her anxiety-management system.  This is especially true if eating (or the thought of eating) produces nausea, gagging, and/or vomiting.

Framed in this way, it’s clear that the way out of a picky eating problem is to give your picky eater an alternative way, a better way, to manage anxiety around food and eating.

Relaxation techniques can help reduce your child’s anxiety.

Here’s an example of a program you can use to reduce your child’s anxiety around eating.  It was originally targeted to children 7-16, but I don’t see any reason why the ideas can’t be adapted and applied to younger children as well.

Step 1: Record thoughts and feelings.

  • Help your child keep a detailed record of what he eats every day for a week.
  • Talk about worrying feelings or thoughts that arise during mealtimes.  (For younger children consider facilitating this conversation with drawings or playtime with dolls.)
  • Ask your child to choose a time when he might feel comfortable trying a new food.

Step 2: Systematically desensitize your child to the experience of trying new foods.

  • Have your child choose a new food to try.  This can be a variation on a familiar food or something totally new.
  • Make sure your child knows that the goal is to try the new food, not necessarily to like the new food.
  • Give your child no more than ½ a teaspoon of the new food to taste.
  • Reinforce every attempt to try a new food with a token chart. Remember, every try is a success.

One way to use rewards is to make a picture built from the tokens.  For instance, you could make a food flower: Have your child attach sticky paper leaves—one for each tried food—around a paper circle center.

For more on introducing new foods read: Nix the Negativity and Why Some Kids Should Spit.

Step 3: Teach your child to relax at mealtimes using guided imagery.

  • Talk to your child about how he can use what goes on inside his head to make trying new foods easier.  Explain this as a form of “magical thinking” where people use their minds to help them control worries, or other symptoms such as gagging.
  • Help your child construct a story with images to help reduce or control symptoms.  For instance:

“Tracy made a story using her favorite animal, a horse. In the story she went on a fabulous journey and galloped across fields before finding a stream. In the story she sat by the stream and drank magic water, which would prevent her retching when she tried new food even if she didn’t like it much.”

  • Prompt your child to use “magical thinking” before each meal.

You may think your child is too young to do these exercises. And that talking to your child would be a waste of time.

But the secret is to engage your child in the process— at whatever age, and at whatever stage.  It’s the only way to teach your child the skills he’ll need for a lifetime of healthy eating.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~

Sources: Farrow, C. V. and H. Coulthard. 2012. “Relationships Between Sensory Sensitivity, Anxiety and Selective Eating in Children.” Appetite 58: 842-46; Nicholls, D., D. Christie, L. Randall, and B. Lask. 2001. “Selective Eating: Symptom, Disorder Or Normal Variant?” Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry 6: 257-70.