Among the most common frustrations we hear from families about their dinners is some variation on this refrain: «They’re just so picky! I hate all the complaining. I don’t want to make separate meals for everyone, and I can’t stand to see all that food go to waste!»
The truth is, most of us struggle at some point in time with family members – and it’s not just kids! – who are selective eaters. Sometimes the problem is that the person is legitimately a «super taster,» or someone who can more acutely taste strong flavors like bitterness that others don’t detect. More often, it’s a matter of psychology: a toddler asserting independence by rejecting foods, a spouse who was forced as a child to eat beans and now can’t stand the sight of them, a teen who’s dabbling in vegetarianism. Occasionally the problem is more severe and may warrant professional intervention, such as when a child has sensory processing issues due to autism or another developmental challenge. But whatever the cause, having selective eaters at the family dinner table can lead to frustration, which can ultimately undermine the positive, calm mood that sets the stage for a meaningful meal.
So what can you do? If the challenge isn’t one that has a medical or neurodevelopmental cause, there are simple strategies that might help restore sanity at the table. For a selective eater, trying new foods can be a leap of faith; remembering that, and the LEAP acronym, can be the starting point to changing things for the better.
L – Lead by Example.
«But Daddy’s not eating his broccoli!» is a gut-check moment for parents. Is everyone at the table being served the same items, and are family members acting as role models for the selective eaters by making sure to eat and enjoy a wide variety of foods? Example is more powerful, and less stressful, than constant commentary on what people are or are not eating. Let your fork do the talking.
Recipe for Conversation:
Tell a story about a time when you had to try a new food you weren’t sure of. What happened? How did you feel? Did you like it?
What’s one food you enjoy now that you once disliked?
If you could eat only one food every day for the rest of your life, what would it be?
E – Explore.
Neophobia, or fear of trying new things, is common, especially among children in the preschool and early elementary years. Find ways to help your selective eaters experience new foods without the pressure to eat them. Take them to farmer’s markets or plant a garden; let them touch and handle new food items and describe what they see, feel, and smell; allow them to gradually work up to tasting the new food by putting it close to their plate, then on the edge, then nearer the center and paying attention to how they feel at each stage. Licking, sniffing, nibbling and touching are all good steps towards eating, so it may be gentler and less stressful to let selective eaters work up their courage rather than pressuring them to take a certain number of bites or to chew and swallow disliked foods.
Recipe for Fun:
Hold a blindfolded taste test! Start with familiar, accepted foods and see who can accurately guess what each item is.
Play «Food critic.» Give small tastes of new items and allow family members to fill out score cards rating taste, appearance, texture and smell. Make sure to leave room for comments – that’s the best part!
Play «Food Detective.» At the grocery store or farmer’s market, give family members a list of clues: «Something red and round that grows on a vine; something green and leafy with long stalks; something long and orange that grows in the ground.» Have each person identify and find the foods on their list.
A – Allow Them Space.
And allow yourself space, too! Nothing makes a mealtime more unpleasant than constant criticism, pressure, or bribery to make family members eat. Give selective eaters emotional space by refraining from commenting on what everyone’s eating, and allow them to feel empowered by serving plenty of «Build Your Own» meals where they can decide exactly which items from the serving platters will go on their plates. You can give yourself the same kind of space by trying to relax and take the «long view» approach to feeding: As long as you are serving a wide variety of foods over the course of the week, and providing encouraging, supportive opportunities to explore new food items, laying off the pressure at mealtimes won’t be a setback. In fact, the less stressed your selective eaters feel at dinner, the more open-minded they may eventually become. (And the less stressed you are, the more pleasant mealtimes will be for everyone!)
P – Praise.
You don’t have to throw a full-on dance party every time your three-year-old eats his peas, but a gentle and positive acknowledgement of their efforts is a good way to respect your selective eaters. «Wow, I noticed you took two bites of that apple slice! Great!» or «You did a great job trying your carrots tonight. How did that feel?» can show family members that you understand that trying new things can be a challenge. For older kids, teens or adults, you might choose to express gratitude instead of praise. «Honey, thank you for giving the green beans a shot at dinner tonight. I know they’re not your favorite, but I appreciated how you gave them a try.»
Dealing with selective eaters at the table requires patience and sometimes a good sense of humor, but if you keep your expectations realistic and stay calm and positive, most «picky problems» can be resolved to one degree or another. Keeping your approach light and focusing on the fun and conversation, instead of zeroing in on the food, will build a family dinner atmosphere everyone can enjoy.