The Picky Eater Challenge - Sleephaven Sleep Consultation: Helping Tired Families Sleep

As parents, most of us want what is best for our kids.  We want them to grow strong and healthy in mind, body and spirit (which includes sleeping enough and eating well).  I think that’s one reason that picky eating can be so challenging to deal with:  it strikes at the core of what it means to be a “good” parent.  Somehow we think that when this tiny human being enters the world in our care, we “should” know how to protect and provide for our child in the basics of eating and sleeping – and if that little one doesn’t sleep or eat well, that somehow it’s our fault.

Not true!  One of the best things you can do as a new (or new-again) parent is to reach out and draw from the wisdom of healthy mentors and infant/ child specialists.

I’d like to introduce you to Maryann Jacobsen, who is a Registered Dietitian and fellow Gentle Sleep Coach.  While I’ve had the privilege of supporting many families through feeding challenges as a pediatric Occupational Therapist, I was impressed with the sound information and advice captured in this article by Maryann.  Watch for my summary at the end, with a couple of additional tips.


5 Myths about Picky Eating That Just Won’t Die, and the Truths Parents Need to Know

By Maryann Jacobsen, MS. RD

As a family nutrition expert, I constantly come across myths about feeding young children, especially picky eating. Not only do these beliefs have the potential to compromise a child’s relationship with food, they make mealtime a struggle for the entire family.

By tackling the most common feeding myths, I hope to bring the truth to light. Identifying fact from fiction not only helps parents do a better job feeding, it has the power to restore joy to the family table.

So here are the 5 myths about picky eating I encounter the most often, and the truths that lie just beneath the surface.

  1. Once a good eater, always a good eater

I’m with a group of moms and overhear someone say what a great eater her 15-month old is. She can’t believe the trouble other parents have with picky eating. What this mom doesn’t understand is her daughter is in the honeymoon stage of feeding. This is a time most (not all) young children are very accepting of a variety of food.

While every parent wants to take credit for the older baby who eats everything, it’s actually to be expected as growth is at its highest and little minds have not learned to resist yet.  Instead of gloating, parents can get busy taking advantage of this stage by feeding as much variety as possible (not bland baby food) and bringing little ones to the table.

  1. Picky eating is always bad

Around toddlerhood, most parents notice a change in their child. Maybe Joey no longer eats anything green or Emily wants to skip dinner. The myth is that such picky-eating habits are bad when in reality it’s a normal part of how children develop. Most toddlers aren’t picky eaters as a result of what parents do or don’t do, they just aren’t growing as fast and naturally become skeptical of new food.

In fact, food neophobia (fear of new food) peaks between the ages of two and five. In one study, 27.6 percent of three-year-olds were found to be picky eaters but this dropped to 13.6 percent at six years. That doesn’t mean picky eating disappears by age six, but it generally gets better as kids enter school. During the picky stage, children drop some of the foods they used to eat, eat erratically, and become resistant to anything they view as “new” or “different.”

  1. Picky eating is all parents’ fault

There are many articles that actually blame parents for picky eating, which is the most harmful myth of all. The truth is picky eating is not only part of development, there is a genetic component.

Research suggests that 70 percent of preschoolers are sensitive to the bitter compounds found in many vegetables, which may be why young children often shun vegetables. One study showed both genetic and environmental effects on food preferences but found liking fruit, vegetables, and proteins is more likely to be genetically linked, while preferences for starchy foods, snack foods, and dairy are more likely to be due to a child’s food environment.

  1. Just make them take a bite

While some kids do okay with one-bite rules, pickier kids typically don’t because they are more sensitive to the taste and texture of food. In one study, children who were less picky were more likely to accept a novel fruit with modeling and prompting. Yet the pickier children did best with the modeling only (no prompting).

Eating is not a two-step process (sit down, put food in mouth) for children the way many parents believe. Learning to eat is actually quite complex with a steep learning curve. According to feeding specialist Kay Toomey, pickier children may need as many as 25 steps before they are ready to put a food in their mouth!

  1. Go cold turkey: they won’t starve

You often hear advice along the lines of telling children “eat this or starve.” That harsh stance intuitively feels wrong to many parents so they go in the opposite route and cater to their children. What if we approached other learned subjects this way? If a child was having difficulty learning to read would we force him to read the same novel we were reading? Of course not, we’d have them practice just above their level or get them some help. And we’d never think to have them read beginner books their whole childhood.

We can support young children by eating with them, making sure there’s always something at the table they can eat, providing a wide variety of food, and taking the time to teach them about food (Satter’s Division of Responsibility is another must). The more they learn and become familiar with a variety of food, without pressure, the more they will expand their tastes over time.

Picky eating is simply a reminder to support children the same way we do with other learned skills — math, reading, riding a bike — that kids master during childhood. We can’t expect for them to have eating all figured out by the time they are four or five. No, it takes an entire childhood.

Maryann Jacobsen has written some helpful resources, including  From Picky to Powerful, What to Cook for Dinner with Kids and How to Raise a Mindful Eater.  Find out more at


Margot’s Re-cap:

Many parents report feeding challenges – you are not alone.  Remember these truths:

  • A child’s openness to new foods waxes and wanes.
  • Keep offering a variety of foods. Include foods on the table that you know your child will eat.
  • There are physical reasons that may cause your child to shy away from different tastes or textures as his body develops.
  • Try new foods yourself. Show your child how to tackle something new with a “No Thank-you” Bowl (see below).
  • You can’t make your child eat (just like you can’t make him sleep!) – but you can set him up for success. You have control over when your child eats, where your child eats (preferably seated at the table) and what foods you offer.

Sometimes there are other triggers for feeding challenges.  If your child’s repertoire of accepted foods continues to shrink, he coughs and/gags regularly while eating, or he experiences weight loss or lack of energy, seek immediate medical help.  A referral to pediatric feeding specialists (Dietitian, Occupational Therapist or Speech Language Pathologist) may be needed.


The “No Thank-you” Bowl

Here’s a helpful way to model adventuresome eating.  Place an empty bowl on the table.  Pick up a food that your child finds challenging with your fingers or your fork.  Take a sniff: “Hmmm.  I’m smelling this broccoli tree with my nose.”  Touch it to your lips.  “Now I’m tickling my lips.  Maybe I’ll touch it with my tongue, like this.”  Now take a little bite.  “My teeth are going to take a little bite, like this.”  Next, model what to do if you don’t want to go further:  “Hmmm.  I don’t think my tummy wants broccoli today.  I’m going to put it in my ‘No Thank-you Bowl’.”  Show your child how to take the food out of his mouth with his fingers and place it in the bowl.  No muss, no fuss, no big reaction on your part if he doesn’t try something new.  That’s the beauty of the “No Thank-you Bowl”:  it is a safe way to try new foods and have an “out”.  Who knows?  Maybe with a “No Thank-you Bowl” on the table, you try some adventuresome eating yourself!

So, if you are facing challenges as a parent, reach out!  Help may be just a phone call or email away.

Margot Byer
Sleephaven Sleep Consultation
Helping Tired Families Sleep
… in Edmonton, Alberta and Beyond!