Can you put a child through picky eater rehab?
Lately, I’ve been asked (a few times) about whether parents can reverse the unhealthy eating habits of the older picky eater.
In other words, can you rehabilitate those unhealthy eating habits and overcome picky eating?
It’s a great question, and for me, as an ever-optimistic believer in kids and harnessing their own power to change, I believe that YES, with the right support, picky eaters can be helped.
I see rehab happening all the time in the picky kids with which I work.
Picky Eater Success Story
Just the other day, one of my little guys (9 years old) showed up to his appointment with his list of new foods. He is now eating up to 9 to 10 entrees, an increase from a total of 3 when we started to work together. He also experienced a 4# weight gain over the past three months. Not an easy feat to expand your food repertoire and gain weight!
How to Overcome Picky Eating
One thing I do know, as kids get older, the strategies for overcoming picky eating change—they must.As kids get older, the strategies for overcoming picky eating change—they must. Click To Tweet
You instinctively know this, too.
Cutting food into fancy shapes, enticing a bite of a new food with dessert and the other distractions that used to work, no longer impress your older child.
Yet, much of the picky eating advice you’ll find centers around toddlers and young preschoolers. This may add to your frustration in dealing with your older picky eater.
Toddlerhood is the developmental stage when picky eating is most likely to begin and take hold. Don’t get me wrong. A lot can be learned from the picky eating advice you’ll find for youngsters.
But as the parent of an older picky eater, I imagine you’ve been there, done that.
Why Do Kids Stay Picky?
Your older picky eater may have “learned” to be picky (and continues to be picky) from your feeding interactions such as pressuring him too much to try new food.
Or, pickiness may be related to the food you have offered (or haven’t provided) over the years, solidifying your child’s food preferences. Perhaps there are other medically- or behaviorally-based challenges going on.
If you want to be successful in helping the older picky eater overcome unhealthy habits, you’ll need to have a handle on the fundamental information to tackle this project effectively.
Another resource is Try New Food, my quick 60-page e-guide for helping challenging eaters taste, eat and like new food.
In it, I’ve included the printables and tracking guides I use with my own clients to help you take a positive and methodical approach to picky eater rehab.
Picky, Picky, Picky: The Mindset
The older child who is picky has a different mindset because he’s more mature. His cognitive abilities are more refined.
He is undeniably more independent and lives a good part of his life away from you.The older picky eater has a different mindset; you must tap his motivation to have success with picky eater rehab. Click To Tweet
So, in addition to setting up an environment for success that includes healthy food, sets a limit on indulgent foods such as sweets, sugary beverages and fried foods, and sustains regular times for meals and snacks (with the kitchen closed in between), you’ve got to work on his or her motivation to try new foods and eat well.
You can find more on setting limits on food and eating in this post. Without boundaries around food choice and eating, you may not have the success you want.
Developmental Stage and Motivation
Every child is different, so the way to boost intrinsic motivation (or the desire to do something because it holds value for your child) will reflect developmental stage, personality and temperament.
Depending on the age of your child, his developmental stage will have an influence on his motivation to change and his value system related to food.
For example, if your child is in elementary school, it’s likely that he will be influenced by peer pressure.
If kids are noticing your child doesn’t eat certain foods or eats the same foods every day, your child might be feeling the heat and want to make an effort to work on his picky eating.
Or, that same peer pressure may have an opposite effect, making your child more stubborn in his food choices and resistant to try new food.
The picky teen may also be sensitive to peer pressure, but as he ages, he is likely looking to be independent, and perhaps even different from his peers.
This can be challenging because at this stage, you have less control and input on what your teen is eating.
However, teens are budding adults, which can be the platform for encouraging “adult” food choices, taking on the responsibility for one’s own health, and exploring new foods.
Talking about Food and Nutrition
All nutrition talk should be done in the most positive, upbeat way to spark curiosity. The “it’s good for you” argument will fall flat for the savvy older picky eater, so you’ve got to come up with something better.
“XYZ has protein and that may help stop that starving feeling you have after school.”
“We could try to include some healthy fats at breakfast. You like XYZ and it has those healthy fats…they help your brain focus and concentrate so that learning is a little bit easier.”
“Eating a satisfying and substantial snack before you practice will energize your body and help you have a better/efficient/productive practice.”
“Maybe sweets are giving you trouble with your skin?”
It can have the opposite effect, turning your child away from moving forward. Make nutrition relevant to your child and come from a place of curiosity when making observations.
Likewise, putting too much pressure on eating “healthy” or trying new foods doesn’t work in younger picky eaters either, and it often doesn’t work for the older ones.
I encourage my families to drop the food and nutrition talk if they have a finicky eater.
Picky Eater Rehab: The Role of Confidence
Who really knows what will motivate your older picky eater to overcome his eating challenges?
I can’t say that I know exactly the formula for success but I can share with you what I have seen motivate the older picky eaters I work with in my practice.
Much of it has to do with building confidence, allowing food rejection and moving on (there’s are thousands of foods to try!), while encouraging an open attitude for food adventure.
You and I know, a child who refuses food will have a harder (and longer) time moving forward.
Food Makes your Older Picky Eater Grow
The older picky eater may be having some trouble with growth, either not growing as he would like, or perhaps even having some excess weight gain.
Most children I work with respond to the idea of food and how it contributes to growth. Typically, kids want to grow and reach their full potential.
Make the connection between good nutrition and getting taller, stronger or healthier.
Food Affects Learning and Grades
The brain relies on nutrients for optimal function. Eating every 3-4 hours can help provide the brain with the nutrients that support focus, concentration, and learning.
Encourage your older picky eater to try foods that offer learning nutrients (healthy fats), such as avocado, olives, nuts, or fish.
For the older picky eater who has ADHD or another learning or behavioral challenge, take a look at my Healthy ADHD Diet Guide for some of those important brain nutrients and their corresponding foods. Also, be aware that low appetite may have a role in eating.
Food Encourages Strength and Stamina
Certain nutrients, like protein, help to build muscle strength, while other foods, like complex carbohydrate sources (whole grain bread, potato, brown rice), help with physical endurance and stamina.
Food can keep your child going.
Food and Self-Perception
How children interact around food may influence their self-perception. A child who has been labeled a picky eater may not have the confidence to bravely try a new food.
A picky eater who has been criticized or made fun of may steer clear of situations involving public eating.
However, if your child is praised for his eating attempts, called out for being adventurous or fearless around food, the dynamic may change and confidence can build.
How can you encourage your picky eater to try new foods?
If you don’t have it yet, be sure to download my FREE Picky Eater Do’s and Don’ts Cheat Sheet here:
Like what you read? Join my weekly email newsletter to learn more and receive free downloads and resources.
Written by: Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Published on: June 29, 2016
Updated on: October 6, 2019