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How to change your child's diet - picky eaters included!

Updated: Oct 11, 2023

Let's say you already know why you want to make a diet change. You know that you'd like to introduce new or more nutritious foods, but aren't sure how to go about (what seems like) this monumental under-taking. In this post I'm going to stick to the how of changing a diet. What steps can you take to preserve your sanity, your relationship with your child, and most importantly, your child's healthy relationship with food? With this approach your child will learn to trust his own hunger and satiety cues and engage in the pleasant, social experience that is mealtime. It can be done!

1. Present food without pressure or praise

First let's talk about what this looks like in real life, then I'll explain. Mealtime looks like this: we prepare the food, allow the kids to help if possible, then put the food on the plate and put it in front of them. We then talk about our day. When they take bites or eat, we do not praise. There is no discussion about what is "healthy" or will "make you grow big and strong." Kids are incredibly perceptive and learn to associate these catch-phrases with food that doesn't taste good. There was a study done on it!

What about "first take a bite of this, then take a bite of this" or "you can't have your ____ until you eat your _____"? They learn quickly here that the reward (and therefore better) food is the one they get after they eat the yucky stuff.

We want them to learn that you eat because you are hungry, not because someone else encouraged you or praised you. This is training for self-regulation. It also side-steps the potential power struggle. Praising sends a message that we, as parents, want them to do something. Children are hard-wired to rebel against parents as part of the natural developmental process. We avoid this opportunity for rebellion by remaining neutral, modeling what is expected, and not making a fuss. Besides, this is a power struggle that you cannot win. You cannot force a child to eat, so best to avoid going down that road.

2. If at first you don't succeed, present and present and present and...

You get the picture. So you did as described in #1 and it didn't work. They didn't bite... literally. This is so important - you keep presenting, without pressure or praise, again and again. It can take kids 10 or so presentations before trying a food. It can take picky eaters many, many more. If a child doesn't eat broccoli after 7 tries, the most important thing to do is continuing to present and never letting them hear you say that "Amanda doesn't like broccoli" or "Amanda doesn't like vegetables" and especially not, "Amanda is a picky eater."

Kids believe what they hear about themselves. Even if you aren't speaking directly to them.

Just because they did not try it the first round of presentations doesn't mean they won't ever. Be sure not to put out any limiting beliefs or encourage them to internalize the picky eater label. If you have said these things in the past, that's ok! Today is a great day to start fresh.

3. You decide what is for dinner

You, as the parent, decide what is for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This may be confusing since you have heard to let your kids make choices to increase their independence and confidence. I'm going to encourage you to not let that concept into mealtime for a few reasons:

It encourages the power struggle again, at a time when we can't afford to enter into one. It's a slippery slope where parents can fall into the trap of being a short-order cook, trying desperately to please the quickly-changing whims of the child. It's also important to point out that permissiveness often breeds more anxiety in children, creating a vicious and frustrating cycle. Think of how you feel at the end of a long day. You're tired, hungry, and spent. Someone asks you what you want to eat, or where you want to order dinner. Most of the time, you just want someone to decide for you!

Initially, kids may seem upset about this sudden change in routine. Soon, you'll find that after you settle into these roles, kids start to breathe a sigh of relief knowing that you, the trusted caregiver with the fully-developed cortex (most days), is confidently in charge of providing food for them.

4. No Grazing

Constant snacking isn't good for their systems or their likelihood of eating at mealtimes. Hungry kids, like hungry dinner guests, are much easier to please. When you do offer snacks, it's a nice time to present a choice from two or three of your preferred options. Instead of "what do you want for snack?" or "Do you want apples for snack?" which is a huge invitation for a "NO," you can say, "Would you like the apples or the carrots and hummus for snack"

5. Encourage participation in meal prep

This is usually very helpful in tipping the scales toward trying a previously-rejected or new food. When kids feel ownership and involved in the meal, they are much more likely to be excited about tasting it. Don't forget to remain neutral about them trying! See number 1! I've seen this play out in a very small but meaningful way in our own house. My older wouldn't eat smoothies. I let him peel the banana, throw it in the blender and push the on button and that was it! He was into them!

6. When switching to a new diet - work on one meal at a time

When we made the switch from gluten-free, dairy-free to paleo, we focused on changing one meal at a time to avoid overwhelm for all of us. Whatever your specific goals are, focus on one meal at a time.

7. Seek professional help for specific aversions that persist

Aversions that persist beyond consistently implementing the above warrant an evaluation into tactile and oral defensiveness. Your MNRI (Masgutova Neurosensorimotor Reflex Integration) therapist will have exercises that can help tremendously. Once you've created a healthy environment and set of expectations around mealtime, you will see changes even faster with your reflex work.

I'd love to hear your feedback in the comments below - I will do a follow-up post on specific examples and scenarios!

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