My guest this week is Jenny Friedman and we discuss how to manage a picky eater. She is a registered dietitian who specializes in pediatric extreme picky eating. Known for her playful and approachable style, Jennifer is a leading resource for parents and professionals working with children who struggle at mealtimes. She is the author of Stories of Extreme Picky Eating and shares her insight on her website and her blog and on social media. Learn more about Jenny Friedman here.
In this episode, Jenny and I discuss one of the most popular questions I get from parents “what to do with picky eaters?” She offers excellent advice in this episode that provides parents with a roadmap of where to start and how to think about this from their kids’ perspective. We’ll discuss the bridging method, language around food, and other changes you can make to food that help your child move in the right direction of trying more foods.
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“Picky eater” can mean many different things
- Might manifest as a preference for a particular texture, color, or temperature of food
- Could be due to an oral motor deficit
- It can be easier in the mouth for them to manipulate certain textures
- Could be generalized anxiety
- Could be a developmental delay
- Could be constipation, allergies, post-nasal drip that cause food to taste different or hunger to be non-existent
- Could be trauma with food that can manifest as extreme selectivity or pickiness
Difference between a picky eater and feeding problems
- Picky eater – developmentally on track, doing well in all other aspects of their life, but is pickier, and has more rigid preferences
- Feeding problems – if their total number of foods that they’ll eat is under 10, inability to eat outside, with others, affects the child and the family’s life significantly, missing food groups entirely, extreme rigidity
How to help kids feel more comfortable with new foods
- Look for patterns (color, temperature, shape, or textures) of their preferred foods and go from there.
- If they like crunchy foods like crackers, try similar crunchie foods like rice cakes or baked veggie chips
- Take the preferred food and make a small change to it
- If your child likes a certain cookie, try making a homemade version of that cookie
- Next you try a muffin that is similar in flavor
- Then you’d try a muffin with maybe carrot or zucchini but still similar in flavor
- Stretch the edge of that comfort zone, but it still needs to feel like something they can handle
Giving kids some control through choices helps the process immensely
- Let them choose which things they’d like to try first on the plate
- Let them choose if they’d like to touch it, smell it, try eating a bite
- Involve them in making the changes, ask them to add in food coloring or make the shape of the food
- Give them a heads up about weekly meal planning and let them choose which nights they’d like to have the meals YOU have selected
Should parents give an ultimatum? “This is what’s for dinner, eat or don’t eat.”
- Giving an ultimatum brings more stress and anxiety to the table and doesn’t help them grow into eating more foods
- Always offer a preferred food as part of the meal
- It is not recommended to make them a completely separate meal
Follow Jenny Friedman
Episode Intro … 00:00:30
Difference between picky eater and feeding disorders … 00:11:30
How to help kids eat more foods … 00:15:10
What changes can you make to their food … 00:22:47
Giving kids some control through choices … 00:33:10
Should parents give an ultimatum … 00:37:40
Use this language around food … 00:41:10
Episode Wrap up … 00:44:00
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Hi everyone, welcome to the show, I am Dr. Nicole, and on today’s episode, we’re circling back to a topic so many of you ask about on a regular basis: How to manage picky eating issues with your kids. We’ve covered this in various ways on the show previously, but today we’re going to focus in on a really specific strategy that I think is key to helping both picky eaters and kids with feeding disorders, and it’s called ‘bridging’, or sometimes people call it ‘chaining’. There are some different words for it, but it basically provides a comfortable way to get kids from the foods they currently eat and prefer to new foods that they aren’t currently eating or they don’t yet feel comfortable with. I have seen this type of approach make such a difference for so many kids, and even some adults over the years, that I really wanted to devote an entire episode to it.
So to talk with us about what this approach is, how it can be helpful, I’ve invited Jenny Friedman on the show today. Let me tell you a little bit about her. She is a registered dietitian who specializes in pediatric extreme picky eating. Known for her playful and approachable style, Jennifer is a leading resource for parents and professionals working with children who struggle at mealtimes. She is the author of Stories of Extreme Picky Eating and shares her insight on her website and her blog and on social media, which is where I came across Jenny and her work. It is such a pleasure to have you with us today. Welcome to the show, Jenny.
Thank you! I’m so happy to be here.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
So I would love to start by knowing what the story is behind how you got really focused on helping picky eaters. I find that most of us as professionals, there is something either professionally early on in our career, or something personally that we’ve dealt with that sort of leads us down the path of what we’re focused on. So I’m curious what that story is like for you.
Yeah, so for me it was more of a professional journey. Growing up, for me food has always been a huge part of my life and my family and a big personal interest of mine, so that is part of it, but I find so much connection and enjoyment with food and I want everybody to be able to do that, if they are interested in doing so. So that is part of it, but professionally, I think this was always something deep down that I was interested in, I was just not able to articulate it, and when I was earning my degree in nutrition, I started doing and participating in some research projects in schools where we were trying to help kids eat more fruits and vegetables and we were trying to do some diet improvement interventions, and that led me also to doing some cooking and nutrition education in schools, and in all of these experiences, I saw that learning to accept these new foods came really easily for some kids, and there were some kids who understood it cognitively: Okay, these foods might be good for me, okay you’re asking me to eat them, you’re making it fun, but there’s no way I’m going near it. We’re cooking and that’s very cool, I’m just going to sit on the side. So I became very interested in what was holding some kids back, made some kids have such an easier time with new foods. And that, many years and twists and turns later, led me to where I am today.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
I think that that’s so true, that there can be such a difference between kids, even within the same family. We see families at the clinic where they’re like “Look, my first two kids pretty much ate what’s in front of them, they’re excited about things, and now I’ve got this one, for whom it’s a totally different ballgame”, so even within the same family, there can be a lot of variation.
Definitely, and that’s so interesting, too. I speak with a lot of families in my own practice who if their first child is the one who struggled to eat, they maybe don’t even realize it until they have number two and they’re like, “Oh. There are a lot of different things going on here.”
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Yeah, that’s a great point. I’d love to have you just share a bit about what are some of the main issues that you see that kids have when it comes to picky eating. We throw that term around, right? And I think it would probably be helpful to get into what constitutes picky eating versus other problems. We can do that next, but people, parents and even professionals use the term ”picky eating” to describe lots of things. I’m curious for you, in your practice and your experience with kids, what’s kind of at the root? What are some of the main common issues that you see that lead to kids really being more picky or restrictive in their eating preferences?
I love that you brought that up because it’s so true. I talk about this in all of my work. “Picky” is a great term for us to use to describe what’s going on, but that really does not capture what is happening here. So it’s not that these kids are fickle or fussy or overly particular. More often, there is something lurking beneath the surface. So I see a lot of sensory issues, so children who — this might manifest as a preference for a particular texture, or gosh, it can even be a color or a temperature of food. So we see a lot of kids who are maybe gravitating towards a crunchy texture, for example. That could also be due to potentially an oral motor deficit. So it can be easier in the mouth for them to manipulate certain textures. I see as well some generalized anxiety that might be manifesting at meal times. And often, I think the other kind of big umbrella would be maybe a comorbid medical condition or maybe a developmental delay. Even something just like constipation, allergies, something as simple as that can lead to a bit of trauma with food and can sort of manifest down the road as that extreme selectivity or pickiness.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
I am so glad you raised that because I think that’s a really overlooked issue: A kid who is chronically really constipated or is having a lot of constant — like post-nasal drips from allergies or something. That totally changes the experience of eating, right? There can be outright some pain and physical discomfort involved. I’m thinking about allergies, post-nasal drip, even kids with chronic ear infection issues, it changes your sensory experience with food, right? It changes the taste, it changes the smell, all of those things, and we lookout it through the perspective of our adult experience and lens, but when we really can shift and see, oh gosh, how that would feel or what that experience would be through the eyes of a child with those kinds of issues, I think that’s a really important thing to consider.
Yeah. And sometimes, it’s all of these things. Well, not all, but it can be many different things. So yes, I think it is really important. That’s one of the first things that I always look for, and I think that’s really important if you’re at home dealing with this, to sort of think: What’s at the root of this? Nobody is choosing to be picky. That’s not fun. We’re wired to want to eat a variety of different foods, that’s in our DNA so that we can continue, so we can grow, so our kids can grow and be healthy. So it’s really important to think about what’s behind the issue. So that’s part of how we can help to resolve them, of course.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Yeah. I think that’s so true. There is the parental piece of this too, which, certainly not putting blame on parents, but we do, as parents, there is this feedback loop between us and our kids, right? You talked about anxiety, there can be anxiety on the part of the child when we bring anxiety literally to the table, our own anxiety of feeding kids, and maybe our own experiences as a child with food, or maybe even some traumas or things that we had around eating our food. That really can create some dynamics there too that can lead to things on the kids’ side of this.
That most certainly can. So it is very difficult as a parent, you just want your child to eat. It’s coming from a good place, but you’re right. When we bring our stress to the table, that, at the very least, can increase our child’s stress. And when they’re stressed, their appetite goes down, they’re less likely to eat. When they’re more anxious, they don’t want to eat. And at maybe even the most simple level, anytime that we come feeling that pressure, really putting that pressure on even for a particular food or a particular meal, kids don’t want to do what we want them to do. So it can be a lot more complex than that, but I do find it’s so much easier said than done, but we can kind of come to the table just trusting them to do what they need to do and trying to have very — trying not to bring any particular expectations. That’s really when kids can start to feel more open, and it maybe also gives us the opportunity as a parent to sort of just be open and be able to get some of that — like you said, it’s a feedback loop, get some of that information that we can then use to better support them.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Yeah, and I do think it’s so hard for parents. I was talking to you before we even started the show about how this is definitely in the top 5 topics that listeners ask about. And I think it’s because we feed our kids all day long, right? It’s like food is just constantly — we just got cleaned up from one meal and now, oh my gosh, we’re preparing the next one. So I do think that’s why when there are some of these stressors or challenges or issues around eating, it can feel non-stop to a parent, it can feel very stressful and anxiety provoking. It’s just between meals and snacks and packing lunches and all of that. It can just feel like it’s a constant issue.
Yeah, definitely. It’s all day. You’re doing it all day long. And when you’re done, like you said, you’re planning for the next one.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
So before we dive into really talking about this idea of bridging and how to help kids get more comfortable, let’s touch on the difference between a child who we might refer to as a picky eater, who developmentally is on track with their overall development, who is really doing well in maybe all other aspects of their life, but is more picky, has more rigid preferences, versus a child where maybe a parent does need to be concerned that oh, this is more than just the run of the mill picky eating preferences. There is actually some kind of feeding problem or disorder going on. What are some of the red flags, or what are some of the things that you really want parents to be aware of? Because I think that is a very important distinction.
It is, indeed. And I think we get parents — I hear so often that parents are told all the time “Don’t worry about it, this is normal”, and their internal alarm is going off and it doesn’t feel normal, but they can’t find the help. And it’s even difficult to find, so we’re asking for some parameters here, and there is nothing concrete. There is no guideline of “This is when the alarm should be going off.” So it is hard. Some of the things that I look for can be the total number of foods. So if you’re kind of hovering in that 20-ish range, that can be okay. It’s low, but okay. Anything under that — I work with a lot of families who are in the fives. Five total foods. That’s not enough foods. I guess another way you could think about it is: Can you create a totally distinct menu on two different days? So we’ve got an A menu and a B menu. If you can do that, you’re in a pretty decent place. If you see anxiety when new foods are around, if the child cannot tolerate even eating with the family or just having foods in the house, knowing that they’re on the table, that would be a red flag. Inability to eat outside of the house or again, to eat with others. If this is really starting to limit your life or your child’s life, where going to birthday parties becomes difficult, or they cannot eat in the school cafeteria, you’re worried you can’t send them away to summer camp, that’s something worth looking into. If your child is missing any food groups entirely — so if there are zero vegetables and maybe zero forms of proteins other than, say milk, that can be something that you want to look into. And I think maybe the last big trigger would be an extreme rigidity with their food. So this could be that we eat yoghurt, but it’s actually only this one particular yoghurt from this one particular pouch. It has to be very, very specific. Or maybe the grilled cheese, but it’s if dad makes it, it’s only on this one plate. That could be something that — that’s definitely unusual. So that would be a trigger as well.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Those are great things to keep in mind, and really, as you’re talking, I’m thinking there are two pieces here we are looking at: There is the piece of yes, can your child sustain physical growth and development on what they’re eating? But there is also this big quality of life piece, where because we do eat all day long, multiple meals, snacks and things, a child who is extremely rigid or very limited, that does really impact the quality of their life, not only at home, but outside of the home, and especially as they get older. So even if a child is technically eating enough where they’re still growing and can exist on that food, the question really becomes how substantially it is impacting their quality of life and the family’s quality of life.
Of course, and I’m happy you brought that up, because most often, I see those types of children who are maybe even overweight. They’re growing well, they’ve maintained their growth curve. Everything seems fine. If that is not the case, then yes, that’s a red flag. If they’re losing weight, if they’re not feeling well, doing well, then that is definitely something you need to look into. But more often, I see it’s sort of this silent — it’s something that from the surface does not appear to be really an issue. Nothing seems to be wrong. But you can see how even down the line or at home that this could become very challenging, and I do see it as kids start to get older and they’re a little more independent, that that’s when the social ramifications can come in as well.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Yeah. Absolutely. So let’s get into how we can help support these kids to feel more comfortable with new foods, because to me, I look at it as that’s really what we want here. I don’t ever want any child, whether it’s with food or anything else in their life, to be sort of confined to this little box or this sort of prison of their own anxiety and discomfort and not be given the opportunity to expand and just get more comfortable with things. And I think food is the big one for that. So what are some of the ways that we can help kids get more comfortable? And I know one of the things that you talk quite a bit about in your work is this idea of bridging, how we comfortably or more comfortably help kids move from the things that they currently will eat, and say they like, to some different options.
Yeah. So this bridging concept is a really helpful one for very hesitant children because this is all about making small changes to preferred foods, so we’re really starting in a place of comfort. We’re starting from preferred and we are trying to maintain as many things that keep a child comfortable, as many things that they like, that they tend to rely on on their plates. We want to keep that as consistent as we can, for as long as we can.
So this concept of bridging is really just about making connections, and we can think about it in terms of food, which is where I will spend most of the time, but I also want to touch on this idea of cognitive bridges, which is just a tip that you can use at home when you’re introducing a new food or any time there is something new on the table. I’d just like to draw a connection. So you’re eating an apple, your child loves pretzels and chips and you bite into your apple, and it’s like “Ooh!” You can make the observation that this apple is really crunchy, just like a pretzel, except it’s a little juicier and sweeter.
So those sorts of connections are really helpful. Just to give your child a little bit more information and start to highlight how things are similar because so often, I think they’re seeing things as very distinct. So the same concept, we can apply to preferred food, to actually introducing new foods.
So what you want to do with this is take the preferred food, and you’re just really going to make a small change to it, or find another food with a very small change, and the idea is that over time, your child will first of all have an easier time accepting this new food because it’s similar to their preferred food.
So instead of — Nicole, you gave us the example before we came on, if they like cookies and we’re randomly introducing a carrot, those are very different foods. It can be a very far, difficult journey for them to get to the point where a carrot feels comfortable. But if we’re starting with a cookie, and maybe we are transitioning to maybe a homemade cookie that eventually has some carrots in it, or we’re going from a chocolate chip cookie to a chocolate chip muffin to a muffin with carrot in it, we’re sort of making those small steps along the way that can sort of ease our kids into feeling more comfortable with these new foods and you can see how along the way that creates a little bridge there, a cookie-muffin bridge.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
I love that, the cookie-muffin bridge. But I think it’s so hopeful, because what you said at the beginning of our conversation about the piece of anxiety and what feels safe to kids. I think food is one of the ways that kids feel in control, right? And when we feel in control of something, it brings our anxiety down. If I know exactly what this is going to look like, taste like, I feel in control. It brings my stress and anxiety level down. And one of the things you shared too is that when stress and anxiety are up, we don’t feel hungry, our appetite is suppressed, we don’t want to eat. So this idea of keeping the stress and anxiety lower so that kids are not only emotionally feeling more comfortable, but even physically feeling like, “Okay, I want to eat, I want to do this.”, I think that’s so important. And this bridging, to me, it stretches kids. It stretches the edges of their comfort zone. So maybe it’s not entirely comfortable, which is what’s needed, because if we just leave them totally comfortable, they can’t grow with anything, but we’re pushing the edge of that, but in a way that still is manageable to that. And I feel like that is the key that so many people miss in trying to expand kids’ food horizons. It’s like this big leap, and it’s like no, we need to stretch the edge of that comfort zone, but it still needs to feel like something they can handle.
Completely. Yes. You said so much there. So what we really want to do is sort of two things: I guess the first is we really want to meet our child where they’re at. So maybe you do have the child who can go from a cookie to a carrot, and that is awesome. You should do that. If you don’t, then you want to think: What is going to be sort of easiest for my child? What do they need? You want to think about their preferences and really maintain that. So I keep going back to the crunchy. So we want to maintain their preferences as much as we can. So one way that you can do this is just looking at your child’s — all of their preferred foods, and look for some patterns. And if you notice anything standing out, maybe it’s color and texture, those are the things we want to keep for as long as we can. Now the size of the change, what kind of change we’re making — so can you go from a cookie all the way to a muffin or do we need to have steps in between? That really depends on your child and their severity of eating anxiety or eating aversions and challenges, or maybe it depends on that particular food. So our goal is to really push the envelope just enough that the change is different and that it is productive, but not enough that those alarm bells go off and the anxieties going. So this can be a learning process, and there is no one direct path because we really need to be paying attention to our child and how they’re doing with that particular food or even on that particular day.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Yeah. It’s so true. I’ve worked with kids where the changes initially have to be infinitesimally small. It may even be a muffin that they typically will eat, maybe just presented on a different type of plate or maybe eating it in a different location or something like that, where you’re not even making a change to the food at all, initially. And then other kids can handle bigger changes, so I think that point you’re making is so important that parents have to just try some things and sort of be attuned to their kids and figure out how many little steps are we going to need in here? It’s going to be different depending on the kiddo.
Exactly. So just always pay attention and look for those signs of them shutting down, and what they need. I love that you pointed out that sometimes it’s not about the food. Sometimes it’s not where we start. We need to start kind of earlier than that, like one step ahead. So you can definitely think about changing the presentation in addition to changing where they’re eating it or maybe what meal they’re eating it for. Or you’re changing what food you’re pairing it with or you’re changing how you cut it. So you’re going to cut that muffin in half today instead of having it whole. For some kids, that will be a really dramatic change.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Yeah. So let’s talk about — because I know one of the things that so many parents or even professionals have a hard time even thinking about what the changes might be. So you just laid out some options like location, when it’s being served, what kind of plate or utensil, how we might cut it. So those are examples. What are some other examples of common ways that we can make some changes or bridge to things. You were thinking about things like color.
Yeah. So I always kind of start by thinking about the senses. So what do we see? It’s what color. We see the size and the shape. What texture, what temperature. The brand can be something that we also think about changing. Then the presentation of where, when and how and everything else that can go into it. So it might be something — by using a food coloring, and I always get flak for this, it can be a natural food coloring, like beet juice in changing the color of the pancake. So the flavor is not changed, nothing is changed except for the color. And that can just be the first step of the bridge. And that gets us used to seeing change and it’s going to lead us somewhere. So you can think about that, you can think about — if we’re staying on this pancake example, cooking it a little bit longer. Cooking it a little bit less long, so you know the texture changes a little bit, or then the color changes a little bit just from the browning that you see. It can change the size of the pancake, it’s bigger or smaller.
Some kids need to have it oh so perfectly round. Maybe this one is not going to be perfectly round, or we’re going to try a fun shape or a not-fun shape. You’re just going to, again, cut it right in half.
You can add in — potentially this will change the taste as well, so it’s another one that we can change, the taste, adding a little bit of a different kind of flour or flax seeds, or you can be as fancy and healthy as you want, but it’s just so easy to add things into baked goods. So you can add something in there and it will change the look and the texture and the taste a little bit. So those are some good examples. What are you having on the side? Maybe we’re having a pancake sandwich instead of regular pancakes, instead of the single one.
Again, you can cut it in half, you can eat it with a fork, you can bite into it like a sandwich, or you can really get creative, and none of these is a right or wrong way. It’s just a bunch of different ideas. So there is a little bit of a muscle that you need to exercise here, and ways that you can change your food.
When you are making these changes, it can be helpful to also include your child in that change. You might want to ask their opinion. Or the pancake example, I love it because it’s so easy to get them involved. So change in the food color. The color might be a really big deal. But if they can help you make that change, they can add the food coloring. If they can add in the wholewheat flour or make the shape in the pan, cut the pancake in half — that can be really helpful when they sort of see, they get that sense of involvement, which can increase their interest in eating, but they also sort of see that nothing has fundamentally changed. The pancake, even though it’s in half, it’s still their pancake. So it’s great to either demonstrate that to them or get them involved in the process.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
And that really makes me think about the fact that at the root of this, for so many kids is this ability to engage in this flexible thinking, this same-but-different thinking, and I think especially, that’s one of the reasons why we see picky eating or feeding issues in kids on the autism spectrum, because that type of flexible thinking, that same-but-different, this is different but fundamentally, it’s still the same. We know that from a cognitive standpoint, that tends to be a bit of a weaker area for kids on the spectrum. So I think that idea that you just expressed of them being able to start seeing these bridges and making these connections in their brain of “Oh yeah, it’s different, but it’s still the same. That’s still the same pancake, even though it’s a different color or a different shape.” That is such a fundamental thing for kids to have in order to be able to move forward with eating, I mean really with so many things in life, right? To be able to fundamentally have that same-but-different kind of thinking.
Exactly. It’s huge. And like you said, this really comes down to control and dependability and knowing what we can expect at the table. So these can be, to us, you maybe hearing this and thinking, “Sure, I’ll cut the pancake in half. No big deal.” To some of our kids, it’s a huge, huge deal. So you really do want to start small and be sensitive to this and help them along, and know that it seems silly to you, or could seem silly to you, but this is a very small step in the whole bridge, the long journey.
I think you mentioned before, Nicole, that sometimes, our first change has to be so, so small, but over time, once our kids get more used to these changes and they start to exercise that flexibility muscle, the bigger changes and more newness, more change become a lot easier for them. So it’s always the beginning that is the hardest, then I see once we start to get more flexible with food in the beginning, then that’s something that we can sort of generalize. So the first couple of foods may be really difficult to come by, and then it sort of gets the ball rolling.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
I’m glad you mentioned that because it can be really demoralizing to parents at first, like “Oh my gosh, if I have to have 20 steps between food A and food B, my kid is going to be 90 before they get to 30 foods in their diet.” But it does gather steam and it gets quicker once they get comfortable with it. I’m thinking about kids, because there are a lot of kids who fall in the picky eating category: Kids who want everything separate. Or I’m thinking about parents who say, “Okay, they’ll eat noodles, they will do sauce on pizza, they’ll eat plain noodles or will not do pasta with sauce on it. What’s up with that?” So give us some examples of how a parent could think about bridging that. It’s like okay, they’ll eat the pizza with tomato sauce on it, they’ll eat plain noodles in the bowl, but never shall the two things meet. What would be some options or some ideas there?
That is tricky, these sorts of mixed foods and these things that we see. These giant contradictions are very hard. So the plain pasta, the sauces and dips are something that we can use. And this is so helpful if you can start to use sauces and tips as a tool, because that can be a great bridge in and of itself, but as we’re working up to it, one thing that I like to do is we can sort of start by just playing and experimenting. So maybe we’re dipping the pasta into the sauce, or you can have your child do that. They can dip this tiny little piece. So don’t even have to eat it at first. Maybe they’re just experimenting and they’re playing with it a little bit, they’re just getting a feel, but eventually, maybe they can dip the pasta in the sauce just a little bit if they want, then they can lick it off and use the pasta almost as the spoon or the fork. If you can go from there and increase — maybe then can eat a little bite together, maybe they can wipe it off, and then they’re eating a bite of the pasta. Eventually you start to see something like starting at the very smallest possible set here, maybe one noodle has sauce. So they have a whole bowl of their favorite pasta, and just one noodle has sauce, and they can eat that one or eat around that one.
Eventually, we want to increase the amount of sauce that’s in there, and this is a great opportunity again to have your child involved with the addition of the sauce. So you can — they’re the one who is practicing the dipping, and maybe they’re adding the sauce. You can always get silly with this, depending on your child’s age. Like, “Oh the noodle is going swimming, it’s all saucy here! It’s jumping into the pool of sauce!” Get creative, get silly, whatever lights them up.
And even for older kids, you can create this cognitive bridge for them as well. Like “This is the sauce on your pizza, you can try the sauce on it’s own”, and just make that connection of putting the sauce on the pasta. When you’re doing this, it seems so simple for us to think “They like sauce on the pizza, so it’s the same sauce, why don’t they like it?”
We can think the texture is different. It’s a whole other thing that’s going on here. So is it the cheese on top that’s making it better for them? Is it that the pizza is baked so the sauce is a little drier? It’s sort of not as slippery, and on the pasta it gets sort of wet. So let’s play around maybe with the texture or sometimes when it sits out a little bit more, it gets sort of drier. So I know it seems silly, but it’s just all things to play with. I have a little boy who we tried macaroni and cheese a dozen times, and he just really never liked it. And then one day, we had it. It was sitting on his plate as we were going through trying some other foods, and it had sat there. And I had initially said let’s do the Mac and Cheese first of all, it’s warm, let’s try that. He just didn’t want to do it. He was saving it for the end, and all of a sudden, this was the day that he liked it. And I think part of why he liked it was because it was a little bit colder. It was a little drier. So there are all these things, and we just want to get that information and experiment even if it seems a little unconventional.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Yeah, I think again, it’s getting in their mind instead of looking at it from our mind, and that brings up an important piece here, which is the role of giving kids some choices within some things. I don’t know with this boy that you’re working with, but it sounded like maybe you gave him some choices of which to start with. Or you’ve kind of eluded in lots of examples to giving kids some control through choices like: Here are the options, which I’m in charge of providing, but you get some choice about how to explore that or what to do first. Do you feel like that’s an important thing?
Huge. Huge. So whenever we can get them involved, we’re going back to that control, going back to that sense of involvement — I’m thinking of the wrong word, but when you’re involved in something and you take this ownership over it and you start to feel good and committed to it. So I love any way that we can get kids involved. It’s not only the control with food, it’s also often they’re getting that sensory exposure. The exposure is so important with food. So even if they’re not eating it, but they’re playing with it or touching it, that is so valuable. So you get them involved in any way. If you’re cooking, get them involved in cooking with you, but give them a choice, give them a heads-up. You’re making a menu, you know that you’re having these 5 dishes you’ve planned up in the week. You know you want these five meals, ask them which night. Like, “On Monday, would you prefer pizza or pasta?” You’re picking the choices, you know that this week, you’re having both of those. Let them decide which one is going on the menu ahead of time.
Or you can ask them, “Would you prefer for dinner tomorrow, the pasta or the roll?” Like you said, you want to control that choice, but giving them the ability to choose, they feel that involvement, they know what to expect, and it’s their choice. So much of their day, their life is not things that they can control, and any way that we can give them more expectation and more ownership over what’s happening is really, really helpful.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
To that point, I’m wondering about your thoughts on — we’ve talked how pressure, anxiety and stress are not helpful where all of this stuff is concerned for kids, and you know, there is this school of thought out there of “Well, just put it in front of them and tell them they have to eat it.”, I hear stories all the time. I even remember from my childhood, some stand-offs at the table of “You need to have 5 bites of that before you can leave”, and so I’m wondering about your thoughts around that, and especially where it pertains to this idea of: Should parents force the issue and say “This is what’s made for dinner. If you don’t want it, then fine, don’t eat it. But there’s nothing else”, versus always making sure that there is something that they will eat, because I think this comes up for families all the time, and there is very conflicting advice out there about how to handle that.
Yeah. I think we have to think back a little bit to maybe what sort of picky eater you have on your hands. So I generally recommend that there needs to always be a preferred food at the table for your child. So I think I can argue, no problem, that this should be the case regardless of how we’re categorizing your picky eating. It’s not fair to ask them to come to the table and, imagine we’re having pig’s brains tonight, this is what I made. It’s up to you, fine. You don’t want it, okay.
That’s not really fair, and you can put yourself in that situation as well, if there is something that is so uncomfortable to you, you don’t want to eat it. That’s not fair, you’re hungry and you’re expecting a meal. So I am in the party that we should always have a preferred food, but I also do not recommend having that safety meal — So generally, that’s my recommendation. There are totally times and situations where some families have that, if you’re not eating anything, you’re not happy, this is the one option and you can go get it type of thing, and that can definitely work, but I do not recommend saying “Oh, you don’t like what’s on the table? No problem, I will go make you your very favorite.” Because that is a situation where there is no room for growth at that point.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
And parents totally stress. I mean the number of parents who are short-order cooking then, and tearing their hair out over that, yeah, I agree.
It really doesn’t do anybody any favors. It doesn’t get you anywhere, it makes you as a parent very frustrated. More dishes, more time, messes up your whole family meal dynamic. So the way that we avoid the need to do that is by saying, “This is a preferred food. It is up to you. You eat chicken nuggets 99% of the time, if today is that 1% day, then I’m sorry.” That’s where you can figure out how you want to — if you need sort of an emergency snack that you just so happen to conveniently offer on this particular night, that can be something that you do, but you do kind of want to have the meal at the table and generally that would be the meal. And of course that meal contains the preferred food and it should contain non-preferred foods as well, just for exposure. There is no requirement to eat them, but it’s there. The option is there. And that really leaves the door open and also breaks down barriers between “This is your food, these are the only foods that I know you will eat, this is everybody else’s food, don’t even think about it, that’s not for you.” So we want to create that fluidity of “The option is there when you are ready”.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Yeah, and I love that idea of — How I approach it is “yet”. “Oh, these aren’t things that you are eating yet,” or “This isn’t something that you haven’t gotten comfortable with yet, but here it is. We’re all eating it, we’re not going to exclude you from it”, and it’s a “yet” kind of situation because to me, the language that we use around this is really critical. So many kids even hear us as parents and professionals talking about it, and they get labelled. “I’m a picky eater, I don’t eat those things/I can’t eat those things/I won’t eat those things.” And they hear all of that and they internalize that and then that’s sort of their story around it, right? Which is not what we want to have happen.
Correct. We are still learning, we are in the process. Maybe this food or particular foods, or maybe eating in general is a little bit harder for you right now, but we’re working on it, we just don’t like that yet. It takes a lot of time. We do really want to have that growth mentality where all foods are an option, and where we’re still learning. Math is really hard for some people and eating is really hard for others.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
I love that. One more question before we wrap up, and it’s sort of the same vein of how we communicate about things, but I’m just thinking, a big issue that comes up from parents is how to respond when a kid says, “Ugh! I’m not eating that!/That’s yucky! I don’t like that!”, and parents go, “I’m not sure what to say. Do I say, “Oh well, you used to!” Or “Oh well, yes you do!”, what do you encourage parents to say when kids are responding like that to the food?
It is tricky, and I think we are all sort of conditioned — I don’t know if it’s how we were raised or if it’s just human nature to want to say “Yes you do, you ate it yesterday. You used to like it!”, but I think we just want them to eat and we’re so desperate, but that is generally not helpful. Some kids will feel that as pressure or they will just sort of want to defy what you’re saying, like, “You can’t tell me what I do and I don’t like. I’m going to show you!”
Even if it’s not with a negative intent like that. So you can just ignore it sometimes. I think that that is one — We want to avoid that negative reinforcement, so you’re sitting down at the table, the broccoli is there, “Ugh, gross!” Don’t even pay attention to that. Just let that go. You can always throw a “We’re still learning/You don’t like that yet/I hear you saying you’re not interested in having the broccoli tonight. No problem, you don’t have to have that.” You can definitely throw in “The rest of us are going to enjoy it, so it’s going to be here. You don’t have to eat it.” I’m always okay if they’re very uncomfortable with something on their plate, no problem, you can just move it to the side. I like that “You can.” And again, if they’re moving it with their hand, that’s a great exposure for them, that’s a great interaction. So I think we just don’t really want to — I say people don’t like to talk about foods as good or bad, and I don’t like to have any of that in a different way, that “bad” language at the table. So it’s not that the cookies are “bad” for you. None of this food is bad. You don’t like it yet? Ignore that negative talk and just instead try to foster that growth mentality.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
I love it. So good. You’ve provided so many really practical things that everybody who is listening can take and start applying with their kids, honestly, whether or not you have a picky eater. Some of this is just great stuff. The things we wish we knew as parents before we had our first one, right? I think it’s super helpful. I want to make sure that people know where they can find out more about you and your work, where they can find you online.
Yeah, thank you! So I am most often on Instagram @feedingpickyeaters, and you can also find me on my website where you’ll get hooked up with my blog and my book, www.jennyfriedmannutrition.com.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
And we will link to all those resources in the show notes so that people can easily get there, and I will just say I think that the visuals and the information you put on Instagram are so helpful as just a great introduction to helping parents think about what’s really going on with kids with picky eating, and giving some strategies, so I definitely want to give a plug for people to go and follow you and check out your work there, and thank you so much for taking the time to be with us today and to talk about these things. Super, super helpful and we thank you.
Thank you! It’s my pleasure.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
And thanks to all of you, as always, for listening. We will catch you back here next time for our next episode of The Better Behavior show.