Podcast: Easing Stress Around Eating With Picky Kids
Jenn talks to Jennifer Anderson about ways to address picky eating in your kids. Jenn and Jennifer talk about what picky eating looks like at different ages and when to seek support. Jennifer discusses ways to introduce new foods without being forceful, shares tips and tricks to reduce stress around mealtime for everyone, and answers audience questions about how kids and adults alike can truly enjoy a more colorful, nutritious meal–no tantrums necessary.
Jennifer Anderson, MSPH, RDN, is a registered dietitian nutritionist and has a masters of science in public health from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. In 2019, she founded Kids Eat in Color, LLC, a social impact company dedicated to improving family and child nutrition and health. Prior to starting Kids Eat in Color, she coordinated youth nutrition programs at a food bank, performed research in inner-city food deserts, and consulted for the USDA national office SNAP-Ed program.
Jenn: Welcome to Mindful Things.
The Mindful Things podcast is brought to you by the Deconstructing Stigma team at McLean Hospital. You can help us change attitudes about mental health by visiting deconstructingstigma.org. Now on to the show.
So, hello folks. Good morning, good afternoon, or good evening to you. And thank you so much for joining us today, wherever you’re joining from, because we’re talking about reducing mealtime stress with picky eaters.
I’m Jenn Kearney, and I’m a digital communications manager for McLean Hospital and I’m joined today by Jennifer Anderson. Chances are, if you’re tuning in it’s because you’re either really familiar with a picky eater in your life, maybe were one yourself at a certain point, or maybe even both.
So I’m probably preaching to a choir when I say mealtime can be really tough with picky eaters. And depending on who the picky eater is, this could manifest in a bunch of different ways.
Thinking, like, babies shaking their heads, spitting food out, toddlers shouting no and throwing food on the floor, preteens saying I’m full and then eating Oreos, entirely beige plates on teenagers, you probably get the picture.
So any of these scenarios can turn what we would all hope would be a nutritious way to bond as a family into a really stressful, necessary daily occurrence.
So all of these reasons and so many more are why I am thrilled to have Jennifer join me today because we’re going to discuss that power struggle parents or caretakers may feel when trying to get their kids to try new foods, how to introduce new foods without being overpowering as a parent or caretaker, reducing stress around mealtime for everybody, tips and tricks to make our meals more colorful and nutritious and maybe your family won’t even put up a fight about it.
So I admittedly have her bio, but I don’t think it would do us justice for me to share who she is and what she’s doing in the world of dietetics. So Jennifer, before I start throwing questions your way, I’d love for you to introduce yourself to the folks that are tuning in.
Jennifer: Sure. My name is Jennifer Anderson. I’m a registered dietician. I have a master’s in public health.
I think my biggest credential, I mean, we could talk about a lot of things here. My biggest credential is really the fact that I have a picky eater and because of that, I started an Instagram page for families who are really struggling with this.
And I became an expert myself as I was struggling feeding my kid who was falling in the growth chart, feeding my other selective kid, and next thing I knew I had 1.7 million parents who were struggling day in and day out with feeding kids. And that’s where Kids Eat in Color came from.
Now I’m the founder and leader of Kids Eat in Color as an organization and we have occupational therapists and psychologists and all sorts of people on our team so that we can really help parents as much as possible. But enough about me, I know you have lots of questions, so I want to jump right into that.
Jenn: So you are the best person to ask then when I want to know what exactly is mealtime stress?
Jennifer: I mean, you’ve felt it before. You’re coming to the table and you’re already feeling like your blood pressure is going up, or you have that pit in your stomach where you’re like, I don’t know how to deal with this. I don’t want to deal with this.
I’m worried about my child, I have angst. Maybe my child has a real big problem and I’m concerned that they are falling in the growth chart, they’re not going to be healthy, there’s going to be long term effects. This is the sort of stress that we’re talking...
And then there’s just the day in, day out grind where you’re like, I don’t want to hear it. I don’t like it anymore, I just don’t want to hear it. I’ve heard it 500 times and I’m done hearing this. So there’s that constant stress, there’s that big stress. And it’s something that a lot of parents experience.
Jenn: What does the stress look like in kids of different ages? So can you have mealtime stress look differently as kids are growing up?
Jennifer: Sure. So kids, if we’re talking about kids’ stress, like imagine putting a baby in the high chair and all of a sudden they are crying. Every time you try to put them into a high chair, they’re crying, they’re turning their face away, they are spitting food out.
These are all signs that they could be stressed. Now, of course, they’re also normal baby signs. So you put a fussy baby in a high chair, they’re going to continue to be fussy. Of course they will spit foods out, that’s a cool feeling, you know, there’s all these things as well.
But if you’re seeing these as a constant in your life, then all of a sudden you are, you might be, have a real challenge. And now, I mean, we’re talking about toddlers, they’re standing up, they’re running around the house, they’re not coming, they’re also crying, they’re having meltdowns.
You talk about older kids, like think six, seven, eight, maybe they always have to go to the bathroom and run an errand and go get a book. And they won’t eat at the mealtime. And they say things like my stomach hurts. These are all signs that kids are stressed.
And then maybe you have a teenager and they just want to be on their phone or they don’t want to come to dinner at all or they forget about dinner time. There’s all these signs that kids maybe don’t want to be coming to the table for one reason or another.
Jenn: I know that you had mentioned before, like, stress for a parent looks like you’re dreading the meal. You’re just like, “Ugh, I know what’s coming.” Your blood pressure rises. What other ways can stress at mealtimes impact the parent or caretaker’s owns thoughts and emotions?
Jennifer: Sure. I mean, just speaking from my own experience as a parent with two kids, my kids are, they’re six and eight. So I’m living the stresses day in and day out. I think it can really affect the relationship that you have with your child.
There is that real stress of, I care so much about my child and I want them to be healthy. And somehow I am not able to create a mealtime environment that I want to. And there’s this dissonance inside yourself where you’re like, I want to do it, but I can’t. I want to do it, but I can’t.
And meanwhile, you have this kid who is very stressed out, causing issues, fighting at the table. Maybe they’re calling you names. I mean the older they get like, the weirder it gets, you know. When your child is unhappy, all of a sudden it’s like they can say mean things back to you or, you know, there’s a lot of things like that.
So I think it can be really stressful. And I think that it really can impact a relationship. And even your desire to try to serve a variety of foods to your child. Maybe you get to the point where you’re like, okay, had a long day, I made this meal, you didn’t eat it. And this has happened 30 times.
So now I’m just going to turn on the TV. I’m going to sit you in front of the TV. I’m going to make you your favorite meal. And I’m going to do that for 30 days because that is what I can handle right now. Otherwise it’s too much.
Jenn: So what exactly does picky eating look like in kids of different ages?
I know that there is some illusion that picky eating is part of natural child development, but what stages are there, if any, where that picky eating is normal behavior versus what kids should have already outgrown.
Jennifer: Sure. So there is no official definition of picky eating in the research literature. So I always like to remind parents of that. So, even in research studies, we don’t really know for sure how many children are picky or not.
And there’s all sorts of numbers. But what we do know is 50% to 70% percent of parents say, “I have a picky eater.” And in my view, if you think you have a picky eater and you’re feeling stressed, that is real.
And whether or not you’re meeting some definition, doesn’t really matter. If you’re feeling the stress and you’re frustrated, then that’s real. One thing to keep in mind is kids do have a natural development of what is called neophobia.
Neo means new, phobia means, you know, you’re, you’re worried about it. And so they do begin to have some fear of new experiences. And when we’re talking about food neophobia, we’re talking about the fear of new foods.
Right around the time that they start to become really mobile, they start to become suspicious of foods. And if there’s something new, maybe they’re a little bit scared or like, “Eh, I don’t think I’m going to eat that green thing that I don’t remember seeing before.”
Of course, if you send them outside, they’ll be happy to eat grass, dirt, rocks, you name it. But at the table, no way, that purple potato, I don’t know. I don’t know what that is, I’m not going to eat it.
So we do see that. It’s pretty common for that to develop when kids turn one or two. It can show up as, as late as five, six, and then also picky eating can really show up later. So, on the one hand, it’s very typical. It’s very common.
It’s a known experience, but we also know not all children are going to grow out of that picky eating because there’s underlying things under that picky eating that make it so they are really worried. There’s something else.
They have a sensory issue with food. They don’t eat certain textures. Maybe they won’t eat anything that’s the color green. You all of a sudden start to see that your child really does have some things.
Or maybe they used to eat a hundred foods, and that list started to go down and down and down and down and your child’s only eating 20 foods. We can start to see something that seems pretty typical and common. And all of a sudden it’s not typical.
And you’re thinking maybe something’s wrong. You may even mention to some sort of health provider, “Hey, I think my child is picky. It doesn’t feel right.” And they may say, “Oh, you know, they’ll grow out of it.”
Well, it’s true, a lot of kids will grow out of it, but your child may not grow out of it. So if you’re really feeling like something is wrong, that’s a good time to really push and say, “I think something is really wrong,” and start to do that.
So there’s this balance. Yes, it’s typical. But no, it’s not always typical. And yes, some kids grow out of it, but yes, also some kids don’t grow out of it.
Jenn: I’m curious when you mentioned neophobia, is that something that parents can address by leading by example?
The thought, the image that comes to mind is, like, the parent trying the food and then encouraging the kid to try it. Is that methodology even effective?
Jennifer: Yeah, so we know one of the most powerful things that you can do as a parent is model eating the food you want your child to eat.
So if you’re able to have family meals and I say this, I say able, because hey, I live in the real world. My husband has a job. I have a job. We have kids. It’s not possible to eat every meal, with your child every day.
Can I eat breakfast with my kids? Most of the time no because the morning is crazy. But sometimes on the weekends I can. So as often as we can eat dinner or lunch or snack, it doesn’t matter what time, what day, what really matters is that we are making an effort to eat the very diet that we hope that our child will eat over time.
This can take time and by time I mean, tomatoes are a pretty common occurrence in our house. They show up in all sorts of forms. My selective eater took three and a half years before he chose to eat a tomato.
They were on his tray. They were on his plate. They were at the plate. Sometimes he didn’t want them on his plate, which was fine. All of a sudden, one day he eats a cherry tomato and then he eats a whole bowl of them because he decides, “Oh my gosh, these are really good.”
So it can take time. But when we’re modeling and we have the foods there, kids can learn. I do not... If you have, if you have a child who you think is picky, I generally don’t recommend forcing a child to try a food.
When we force them to try a food, or when we say you have to take a bite, I mean, a lot of kids, you say you have to, and they’re going to be like, uhuh, I’m not going to, right? We’ve all been there. I think two year olds, you tell them to do anything, and they’re like, no, no, I’m not going to do it.
But if you say to a child, “Eh, you don’t have to try it. In fact, I’m not even going to put any on your plate. I’m just going to put some on my plate.” Often the two year old will be like, why didn’t I get any, you know, I want some, I want some on my plate, right?
And so I think as we model, and as we give kids space to not eat something, if they don’t want to be eating something or providing it to them and saying, sure, you can have it if you want, we’re giving them the space to be both independent, and also we’re giving them the space to say, you know what? That looks suspicious and it doesn’t feel right to me.
And I’m going to respect that. And you actually don’t have to eat it.
Jenn: I love that you’ve mentioned your kids a few times at this point. You said they’re six and eight years old, right? So I just love how much they’ve influenced your career and this whole successful entrepreneurial effort.
Curious though, how did you actually realize that they were picky eaters? And a piggyback question is, I’ve noticed that you have said the word selective and you’ve also used the word picky.
Is there a difference between the two of those or is that just recognizing that language matters?
Jennifer: Yeah, it really is just recognizing that language matters. I love this example. My son was in preschool and I picked him up one day and he’s off running around, but there’s a child standing there.
I don’t remember how it came up, but I mentioned something about lettuce somehow. I think the school actually had, like, lettuce growing in a pot. And I said something about lettuce. And the child said, “I don’t eat lettuce. I’m picky.”
I thought, wow, great. This is part of his identity at four years old that he doesn’t eat lettuce because he’s picky. I don’t ever want my kids to identify as picky. In fact, right now they have neighbors, neighbor friends they really like, they play with all the time.
And those kids identify as picky. And so whenever we offer a snack, if they don’t recognize it, they won’t eat it. My kids, on the other hand, they have no idea that they’re selective. And one of them really is not selective. He just struggles with a low appetite.
The other one is selective, but I don’t think he has any idea. In fact, the first time that ever came up was the other day, one kid said, “Hey, you’re picky about this one thing.” And I said, “Well, he’s just learning to like things at his own pace. I wouldn’t call him picky.” That’s what I said, you know?
And I really want him to embrace the fact that he’s exploring at his own pace. He’s not picky. Now, of course, when I’m speaking with adults, the language that we have is picky. And so I use that word as well.
What was the moment when I realized that feeding kids was tricky is when my son was nine months old and I’m standing in the pediatrician’s office and the pediatrician says, “He didn’t gain weight. We need to watch this.”
I’m in there for monthly weight checkups, all of a sudden. And that was the start of super stressful feeding for my child. Does he need PediaSure? Does he not need PediaSure? Is a high calorie diet enough? Is it not? Why is he not eating?
You know, all that stuff. And that’s really where Kids Eat in Color came from. You know, when he was three, I was standing there and making these cute little preschool lunches because I know if I put something novel in his lunch, it’ll peak his interest and he’ll start, like, actually eating.
And I thought, you know what? I cannot be the only parent experiencing this and I’ve got to go find my people.
Jenn: So, I’m curious, you had mentioned, like, PediaSure or other high calorie supplements. Do you think that there’s value to adding those to a selective eater’s plate or should parents consider that to be more of a last resort if they can’t get their kids to try new foods?
Jennifer: So I only recommend PediaSure in the context of working with a dietician, a doctor, somebody who understands your situation, because these are medical drinks.
Now, if you talk to the companies and you watch their commercials, they are going to try to tell you that if you give your child, if you give your child this toddler milk, if you give your child PediaSure, if you give your child X, Y, Z, they’re going to be smarter, they’re going to be faster, they’re going to be taller.
They’re not going to fall in the growth chart. Maybe they’ll be thinner. They’ll be, you could change the color of their eyes. I’m telling you, like, marketing knows no bounds. And these companies have a lot of money and they want you to buy their product and they will use fear and they will use anything that they can to get you to buy these things.
Does PediaSure have a place? Yes. Is that the first place to go? I don’t know. I don’t know your situation. The way that I usually recommend, when a doctor has recommended PediaSure. And I do recommend kind of pushing a doctor a little bit on this because doctors can be influenced by the PediaSure reps as well.
Now, of course, so many doctors are very responsible about this, but working with a dietician and a doctor is often going to give you kind of the best of both worlds where you’re saying, okay, there is a problem and I have talked to the food specialist here.
And the food specialist is like, you know what, understanding your situation. Let’s start with some PediaSure or understanding your situation, let’s start with a high calorie diet or both, you know, we could do that sort of thing.
What we found is we were able to kind of do a high calorie diet, do a really high calorie, like, what we called a milkshake, which is like banana, peanut butter, and milk, which is a lot cheaper than PediaSure, by the way, do that right before bed.
So what you’re doing is you’re introducing food all day long and then you’re doing the high calorie drink, right at the end of the day, just to kind of fill them up with the last calories. What that does is it keeps a child from becoming dependent on PediaSure.
I as a dietician and when I did my clinical rotations and things like that, I saw unfortunately the other end where basically the child and the parents become very dependent on the PediaSure, and then the child is missing out on all this food exposure for years.
Jenn: One of the things I wanted to keep in mind too is that, you know, like you said, even healthcare providers can be persuaded by crafty marketers. One of the things that comes to mind for me is, like, Captain Crunch says it’s whole grain cereal.
Clearly companies get crafty with nutrition labels. So are there any things that parents should be on the lookout for when it comes to evaluating foods or drinks for kids?
Jennifer: Sure. I mean, if it’s in the store these days, there are, it’s going to make all sorts of claims. But I think the bottom line is food is food, and it’s going to provide nutrients to your child.
I think we often have this desire to say, oh, these are the good foods and these are the bad foods. The problem with that is that we are taking the foods out of context. I don’t understand your situation.
I don’t know if you recently lost a job or if you recently left a job and have all sorts of time, or if you are going through a grieving process or you just had a new baby. I don’t know what your situation is, but whatever your situation, you are going to eat in a certain way through that time.
If you don’t have any capacity, maybe you have postpartum depression, or maybe you’re going through a tough time, your situation may call for entirely packaged foods or entirely frozen foods or carry out or something like that.
And maybe there’s times where you’re thinking, wow, I am totally on top of making my own meals and I want to make everything at home. And I want to make everything from scratch and fresh and all that. And that’s your reality for that time.
So every food has its place. Every food has its time. And the way that you’re eating now, you may have some capacity to change that in a way that you want, you may say, “Hey, you know what? I really want my child to eat more vegetables right now.”
And other times you may say, “I don’t even care. Like, that’s the lowest thing on my priority list right now.” Both of those are okay.
Jenn: I’m curious about, based on your background, you have experience with SNAP and other food plans.
How can parents become less stressed with selective eaters if they’re on restricted budgets or food options like EBT, SNAP, or they live in a food desert.
Jennifer: This can be really, really difficult. And this is another reason why I am very, a very strong proponent of the idea that there is no good foods and bad foods. Every family is going to have a certain amount of foods available.
I think if you are on an extremely restricted budget, you are going to want to make sure that every food is eaten in your house, right? And so you are going to, you are likely going to decide to have less exposures to new foods for your child so that you make sure that you can extend your budget through the month, and that’s fine.
And, you know, working on picky, eating and expanding variety may not be your top priority at this time and that’s also totally fine. You can rely on the tried and true things that you know your child will like.
Another thing that I always recommend to parents because, you know, modeling the food that we want our kids to eat is one thing, but also exposing them to foods that we want them to eat. And parents also say, what about the food waste? Because food waste is really expensive.
I highly recommend what I call micro portions. So micro portions are like one pea, not a cup of peas, not a spoon of peas, one pea. It’s one teaspoon of a food I know my child won’t like. It’s a very, very, tiny portion so that you’re not worried about losing money if your picky eater isn’t eating that food.
But you’re also still exposing that food. Maybe you’re even putting a teeny, teeny bit on their plate, which is an even better exposure. And they’re still going to get all the benefits of the exposure, but you’re not going to risk the food waste.
The other thing is really taking advantage of every opportunity that you have for food assistance. I’m a huge proponent of the WIC program, of SNAP, the SNAP program, food bank programs, basically any program that is out there that will help you make sure that you’re, that you have your foods to last through the month, is going to be top priority.
It doesn’t need to be anything fancy. You don’t have to worry about canned vegetables being a worse choice or, you know, I’ve heard people say, “Oh, I don’t want to give my kids fruits or vegetables because I can’t afford organic.”
These things are myths. There’s so many myths out there that make it seem like if you’re eating on a budget that you are doing a bad job or you’re giving your child something that’s not nutritious. And that’s just not true.
I do want to mention one resource that we have, and we offer it for free to parents and that’s our affordable flavors meal plan. And that really helps families stretch their food through the month. And again, it’s available for free to anybody who needs it for free. So that can be a, that can be a resource.
Jenn: Which is a fantastic resource at that too. I know you had mentioned micro portions. You had also mentioned that one of your sons was, you thought that he was a selective eater, but he really just has a small appetite.
What are some of the ways that a parent can tell the difference between who’s selective and who just isn’t really that hungry?
Jennifer: Yeah, so some kids, they have a low appetite. This can be so stressful. Speaking from experience here. They’re just not as interested in eating. They don’t have as much of that hunger, kind of, trying to drive them to eat a lot of food.
You kind of have to roll with it and really continue those exposures and also really focus on high calorie foods. Like every bite counts with a child who has a low appetite.
Jenn: A parent wrote in saying that they’re in a rut with offering the same foods over and over to their young children. How do you continue to offer a variety of new foods without spending all your time in the kitchen?
Jennifer: Yeah, this is huge. So I recommend finding one new meal, one new meal that you want to eat. Like, do yourself a favor because a lot of times we’re just cooking for the kids, which I get it, right, obviously.
But also sometimes if we cook a meal that we really like, we really get into, we’re like, “Oh, wow, this is delicious. I love it so much.” And kids pick up on that. But don’t, don’t, like, make yourself crazy.
And try to add in all sorts of new things, pick one new meal and start to add that in regularly. And then over time you can say, okay, maybe I can add in another meal. Maybe I can add in another meal. But when you’re super busy trying to, like, overhaul your menu it’s going to be, it’s just going to be too much.
Jenn: What then can parents do if their kids keep refusing to try these new foods? Like, how much or how little should they be pushing back if they’re insisting on eating all the same things all the time?
Jennifer: I would not, I would let it just kind of wash over you. Think of an umbrella. I think we often take things personally. Like, “I made this, I showed up to this meal. I’ve been taking care of you. I fed you six times today. And now you’re not eating it and that is offensive to me.”
I get that feeling. But really our win is when we put the food on the table or we put the food on the plate, that’s our win. We can feel good about that. That is, like, the gold star for us, right? It’s really the child’s win, if they decide to eat it or not.
One of the benefits of allowing a child to choose not to eat a food is that they are learning to listen to their internal cues. They’re learning to listen to what their body is kind of saying, because we have these sensory impulses that tell us, “Ooh, I want to eat it.” Or “I don’t want to eat it” or “Oh, I’m full.” “Oh, I’m hungry.”
The only way the kids can really experience this is by experimenting. So if your child says, “I don’t want that broccoli,” they’re learning something. This is a win for them. This is data for them to take with them moving forward.
It’s also a win for them if they decide to try it. And then they decide to spit it out, because guess what? They tried it, they experienced that. And then they decided to spit it out. We forget that kids have a lot of learning to do.
Like, how many times have we spit something out? Hundreds of times probably, as a skill. Like, it’s important to be able to spit something out. Like, you accidentally eat a rock, you need to be able to spit it out.
So these are all really important skills for kids to learn over time. We don’t have to take it personally. And yes, it can feel very frustrating and it can feel like it’s never going to happen. But think back to this tomato. I’m a dietician, right? So I just assumed my kids would like, I don’t know, eat some sort of perfect diet, whatever that means.
Jenn: Yeah, born loving quinoa, that kind of thing? Yeah.
Jennifer: Kids do not care what you do for your profession. They just don’t care. Now, is it cool that I’ve gotten my kids to, over time, through exposure, eat foods that they didn’t used to eat. Yeah, but I’m having to work this over and over day in and day out.
And you know, it, we don’t, they don’t, they don’t just, like, magically learn to eat things. Now, sure, can you force a child? Can you make them try it? Can you say, “If you eat this vegetable, you will then get dessert.”
Sure, you can do all those things. And they do work. But over time, what kids are learning is that you know what they need and they don’t know what they need. The problem with that is as they get older and you kind of back off, because at some point you’re not going to be there, they are like, “I don’t like carrots.”
You maybe eat carrots for two years. And now that I don’t have to eat it, I’m not going to do it. The same with kids who have a low appetite. If you’re force feeding them and you’re making them eat over and over and over, they are building up this desire to not eat anymore.
And then when you stop forcing them, they will suddenly just not really eat at all. And so we see this in the programs that we do and things like that, where, you know, parents have a really hard time and they stop that pressure, and all of a sudden the kids are like, “Oh, great. I don’t have to eat any of it.”
Jenn: If a parent’s concerned around their kids’ eating habits and the recommendations from the pediatrician don’t help, like, if they are growing, they’re in the right growth chart, but, like, for example, they eat butter sandwiches for lunch and dinner every day, who should you turn to next?
Jennifer: Yeah, so there’s a couple ways, if you think your child has, like, a feeding issue, they can’t quite chew right.
Or there’s like, no, there’s a, they will only eat mushy foods or they’ll only eat out of pouches and they’re older or something like that, that is a good time to really push your pediatrician and say, “I think there’s a problem.
And I’d really like a referral to an occupational therapist or a speech language pathologist,” or something like that. You can push if you think you know that something is really, really wrong here.
And I don’t know what it is, but I think we need an evaluation. You can push for that. The other thing that you can do is really seek out an additional source. So you can basically do home based interventions.
I do teach parents how to do that, but I think that sort of thing is also going to take some effort on your part. But often if you have a kid who’s decreasing the foods, they’re only eating the butter sandwiches. Now I’m not against a butter sandwich for little kids.
That can be great source of fat, a great source of whole grains or at least energy. But if that’s all they’re eating, and their diet is only white foods, there could be an issue. And so if you’re thinking, ah, I don’t think we really need a referral to, like, an occupational therapist, but we do have a problem, that is when something like a home based course or something like that comes in.
And that’s where we see parents coming to us is like, I don’t need the feeding therapist, but also it’s not, I’m not okay with what’s happening.
Jenn: One thing to keep in mind too, about, like, the sensory challenges or preferences. We had a parent write in saying, they’re concerned their child will keep saying that they don’t like the texture or they have, there’s something sensory wrong with it so they can try and only eat what they like to and not try new things.
Do you have any suggestions about making accommodations without going so far as to limit the healthy food options in their life?
Jennifer: Yeah, so like in our program, we actually teach parents how to help kids become more comfortable with those sensory experiences that they don’t. Often, we think as parents, it’s my job to make them try this, or I’m only going to serve mushy food, too bad if you don’t like it.
That is really putting an intense amount of pressure on that child and it’s not creating an environment that is conducive to them learning to try new foods. When you have a child who’s not eating a certain texture, they’re not eating it for a reason. Something’s going on on the inside.
They’re not doing it to frustrate you. They’re not doing it because they don’t have to, they’re doing it because there’s something on the inside that is making this a really intense, unpleasant experience for them.
So in order for them and yeah, again, you can find ways to force this, but that is creating a lot of stress and it’s not helping them actually overcome the hurdle that will then help them long term.
So, and you know, in a lot of cases, maybe you’re forcing it and maybe you’re incentivizing it and maybe you’re rewarding, so that they eat the food. But again, you’re kind of degrading those internal signals that they have.
And if you could be a little bit more patient, and kind of giving them the skills they need to overcome it on their own, it can really have a positive trajectory over time.
Jenn: We’ve had a couple parents write in expressing concern around their kids’ snacking habits. Some were because they spend a lot of time being sedentary in comparison to how their parents were when they were their age.
How do you help a child understand the importance of a balanced diet with the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle? These parents want to make sure that, they don’t want to be too explicit in expressing concerns about them becoming overweight.
Jennifer: Yeah, so I think it’s super important, no matter what the age of your child, to not be discussing their weight. Like, my child who has a low weight, I’m not talking to him about his weight, about his size.
That is just, really needs to be an off limits conversation. If we want our kids to be mentally healthy and we want to decrease weight stigma, weight bias, and the discrimination that people in larger bodies experience, we have to start that now.
And we have to start that with our kids. It’s really, it’s really essential. Now, you may go to the pediatrician and the pediatrician may, in front of your child, say “Your child is obese and you need to put them on a diet, and you need to restrict their calories.”
This is so harmful on so many different levels, from the societal level where we’re learning to discriminate people who are a larger size to your household level, where suddenly you are faced with this incredibly stressful experience of somehow magically knowing how to put your child on a calorie restricted diet, which then could put your child’s nutrition at risk, increase their risk of developing an eating disorder. So many things.
So I love that parents are wanting to approach this without bringing up weight or calories or something like that. And we do want our kids to be, we do want our kids to be active. We don’t want them playing video games all the time.
I think trying to find an activity that they enjoy is really the key to this. I know my, one of my sons is super into soccer and there are kids on his team, or at least there were last season, I am 99.9% sure that the parent was like, “My child is larger. I need to put them in an activity. Soccer has running, it burns the most calories, I’m going to put them in.”
And that child did not want to be there, was not interested in the game. And it was so obvious that there was this huge mismatch between the child and the activity that it’s not going to do anybody any good to try to, like, force your child to be active.
I think finding that activity that they enjoy is going to be key, whether that is getting, like, a more active video game or finding out what is that thing that they like. I don’t think that we could force kids, but we might also be able to say, “Hey, we’re going to take up family hiking as our thing. And we’re all going to go hiking every weekend.”
I think there are some things like that where you can use your influence as a parent to say, “Hey, we are all going out. We’re all going to do something fun together, we’re going to learn to go on bike rides.”
And even if the child is complaining a little bit or this that or the other thing, I think it’s good. In terms of snacking, I do think as parents, we can set the tone for snacks. We can control to a certain extent what foods we bring into our home.
We can control to a certain extent when our kids eat. Obviously when they’re younger, we can start to establish a routine. So what I usually recommend is a routine or a schedule. So when you have younger kids, you can say, I’m going to feed the kids a morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack, maybe two afternoon snacks, depending on your schedule, dinner.
Some kids may need a bedtime snack, whatever it is, but you’re going to find that eating schedule for your family. As they get older, you’re going to have less and less control of when your child is eating. By the time they’re teenagers, as they’re gone in the afternoon, you really have no control over what your child is really going to do at that point.
I’ve had families, I had one mom say, “We’ve drilled it into our child, drilled it in that she can’t eat junk food. Because as you know, it’s not that it’s bad. Just our family doesn’t eat it. And then I found out that my daughter has been,” who’s 11, “has been sneaking out with her friends. She’s spent all of her birthday money on junk food and now I’m devastated.”
And her solution was to not let her daughter have any money and to not let her be with her friends and basically to ground her. I think what the, what we need to kind of step back and think is, what is our child curious about? What are they experiencing?
What are their friends experiencing and how can I both help my child understand what foods do in their body? And also help my child navigate the world of friends and growing up and all that stuff.
Now I don’t have teenagers, but I’m a hundred percent sure that my kids are going to eat a lot more junk food when they, and I don’t even like the term junk food, but I think a lot of people know what I mean, when I use that word, they’re going to be eating a lot more foods that I currently don’t keep in the house.
And that’s just something that a lot of teenagers experience, they want the freedom, they want the experience. They want to be able to go out and eat something. And you know, they’re going to go to the cheapest place because that’s how much money they have or things like that.
So I think for us, we just have to kind of accept the fact that over time our kids are going to kind of expand their horizons and you really enjoy having junk food in the house and snacks. And again, I don’t like the term junk food. So I’m surprised that I used it again.
Usually I like, we almost always have a bag of potato chips in the house. I really love potato chips. It’s just the truth. And so I have them around. Now, a lot of people are kind of like, “What do you mean you like potato chips? Like, really?”
Like, I actually enjoy them and they’re in the house, and of course my kids enjoy them too. And now sometimes I hide the bag because I know that they’re going to eat all of my potato chips. So I’ve had to learn to share over time.
But I think like, again, having this understanding of bad food, good food really doesn’t help us. It puts us in this position where we’re like, oh my gosh, my kid went and ate fast food. That’s a bad food. Now my child is going to be unhealthy. That’s not necessarily the reality.
The reality is I can teach my child, “Okay, yeah, you can have that food. I’m also going to serve these food for dinner.” You can introduce the variety that you want to see in your life. And maybe that is frequently going to fast food places. Maybe that’s frequently getting carry out.
Maybe that’s, I don’t know what you want to eat, but where, however you eat, I believe it is good. And that is what you can pass onto your child. And if you want to add more variety to that, or you want to restrict the types of snacks in your house, especially when the kids are younger, that is something that you can do.
And there may be pushback. I’m not saying that it’s going to be, like, easy or anything. The kids could be unhappy, but it’s still something that you can do as a parent. That’s your, like, you’re in charge of that part.
Jenn: One of the things that you had mentioned is, like, setting kids up on a schedule so that they know that they have a snack at this time or two snacks in the afternoon, but how can parents manage repeated food or snack requests that are happening between meals beyond setting up a schedule?
Jennifer: Sure, so you can just say, “It’s not snack time.” And you can say that to your toddler. Your toddler may have a meltdown over this. Guess what? They’re going to have a meltdown over the fact that you peeled the banana wrong.
They’re going to have a meltdown because the car is white instead of purple like they were hoping it would be. They’re going to have a meltdown for so many different reasons.
And I know we really want to, we want to try to prevent those meltdowns, but I think the more that we accept them and just say, “Okay, they’re really upset that snack time isn’t right now. That’s okay. There’s a snack coming in an hour.”
It’s okay for them to experience, have that sensation of hunger for a little bit of time, you are providing food routinely. And that is enough to ensure that your child is going to be nourished. They are going to be taken care of. You’re not, like, making your child be hungry or anything like that.
If you’re experiencing this a lot, it may be the sign that the snacks you’re serving are less balanced than they could be. For example, if you just give your toddler goldfish crackers, they are probably going to be hungry in an hour.
But if you give them goldfish crackers and a hard boiled egg, or goldfish crackers and a cheese stick or something like that, or, like, goldfish crackers and a couple of grapes and a cheese stick, that sort of snack is really going to get you to the next meal or snack without as much whining and crying and saying, “Hey, I’m really hungry,” but they just ate 10 minutes ago.
So I always think of that as, yes, you’re potentially even improving their nutrition, but really this is a strategy for you so that you have to deal with less whining, because you really we want to get them to the next snack without them being like, “Eh, I’m hungry, I’m hungry, I want a snack. I want this, I want that,” right?
We got to, we got to fill them up so that they get to the next one.
Jenn: I know previously in the conversation you had mentioned the whole 30 days of doing it right with no observable improvement. How can parents honor their exhaustion without undermining the process of getting their kids to try new things?
So, like, what would be some of the elements of the eating routine that deserve energy versus the parent just saying, “We’ll try it again later.”
Jennifer: Yeah, so I think the eating routine is huge, making sure your kids are eating at the table, huge, especially if you’re concerned about them being very sedentary, make sure they’re eating at the table, not in front of the video game or the TV.
The other thing is serving those balanced snacks. I think that’s really important, even if they’re, even if they are less variety than you would like to see, balanced meals, the balanced snacks is going to have a little bit more variety than if you are just like, “Okay, we only do goldfish crackers,” right?
So if you can kind of, I know on Instagram, I just posted a reel where I said, “Okay, let’s say you’re burnt out on balanced snacks. Make a list of five protein foods, make a list of five,” what I like to call energy foods, which are, like, the goldfish, granola bar or whatever, “and then make a list of five fruits or vegetables.”
That’s what you serve for snack. And you can mix and match and you can serve them in a rotation, whatever, but those are on the fridge or wherever you put stuff. And that is what you serve for snack.
You don’t have to really think about it anymore. You just pick from those three things and, you know, you have a balanced snack. And if you have a picky eater, just pick things that they like because honoring your exhaustion is going to be better in the long term for your child than not.
You can do the same things with dinners and lunches and breakfast and that sort of thing, where you’re like, “Okay, this is what I can offer in terms of variety. I’m just going to do it over and over. When I have a little bit more capacity, I can add more things in.”
Jenn: I’m curious about food habits that end up developing because of generations. So, when I was younger, my parents taught me I was supposed to clean my plate every time there was a meal. They called it the clean plate club.
I’m sure products of the eighties and nineties are familiar with this. Their parents taught them because they were products of the depression that you’ve got to eat everything because you don’t know when the next time is you’re going to get a full plate.
Now that kids aren’t consistently clearing their plates at their meals, it can be really tough for parents who are my age or a little bit older to break out of that mindset of the clean plate club, or you got to clean your plate every time you have a meal.
Any advice on helping break us out of these thought patterns so that we’re not inducing stress on ourselves?
Jennifer: Yeah, so I want to go back to the micro portions. That is where you’re going to see the least amount of food waste. I often see parents say, “My kid isn’t finishing their plate,” but if you look at what they put on their child’s plate, it’s an enormous amount of food.
I call it wishful portions, which is where parents wish that this is what their child would eat. And then in reality, their child eats what they need for the day and then they stop. So it can be really frustrating for parents, but it’s really our fault as parents.
And I just did this the other day. So it’s not like I’m, I’m saying only other parents do it. But when our kids are leaving a lot of food on the plate, it’s often because they’re full or they didn’t want it in the first place or something like that.
So, you know, my husband got all the peas. I put, like, this enormous amount of peas on their plate for some reason. And they were not hungry for peas that day. And so he got it in his lunch the next day.
But I think we have to remember that, unless we are in a food insecure situation, in which case the clean plate club may still feel like it makes a lot of sense. And so you have to kind of balance that, is there a way for me to still allow my child to, you know, choose whether or not to eat or how much to eat and still not waste food.
And really the micro portions is a key for that. And for other kids who are not in a food insecure situation, I have to think, they’re going to go to a restaurant. And at that restaurant, they’re going to be served two, three meals worth of food.
What are they going to do in that situation? Well, if they’re part of the clean plate club, they’re going to eat it all. Is that what they want to do? Maybe they’ll be uncomfortable. Maybe they would rather…I know I’ve been in that situation.
I kind of grew up with a clean plate sort of thing, and I’ve gone to restaurants and I’m like, “Ugh, I really am full. I really don’t want to eat.” Or I actually like, I don’t like cake that much. I mean, potato chips, load me up, but like cake, uhuh.
I’d go to birthday parties and I’m eating the cake and I’m like, “I don’t enjoy this, I don’t like this cake. This isn’t even a fun experience for me,” but I feel like I have to, and I have to finish it just because I’m compelled.
And that’s, if we can kind of think down the road, how can we help our kids do what they even want to do? Do they really want to finish their plate? Or do they want to say, “Hey, I’m good. I can pack this up and eat it for my lunch tomorrow.”
Jenn: Are there any ways that we could get our kids involved and engaged in the meal making process?
Does that kind of activity make it more likely for picky eaters to try new foods or any other activities that you might suggest that would make them more adventurous when it comes to trying foods?
Jennifer: Sure. So gardening, cooking with your kids, taking them grocery shopping, and modeling. All those things have huge benefits. They also require a lot of parent capacity. Am I going to go build, do a garden with my children? No, I’m not.
That is not something I can do. When my kids were really little, I could give them, like, washing projects or things to keep them busy in the kitchen. I could not, like, bake with them or do a lot of cooking, so it really depends on your capacity. But anytime you’re engaging kids with food, it’s a great exposure experience and a great way to help them learn to eat new foods.
Jenn: Do you have any advice on when parents tell kids they can’t have a treat if they don’t eat something off their plate or at least try through things on their plate?
Jennifer: I would separate those two, really separate them. Dessert is one thing. Dinner is another thing. There shouldn’t be anything in between this.
If you’re going to serve dessert, serve it because what you’re telling a child is, “If you eat your broccoli, I will give you dessert.” You’re saying broccoli is bad and dessert is good. I think in the reality, what we really want to teach kids is broccoli is broccoli and dessert is dessert.
And we don’t want you eating an unbalanced amount of either of these. We want them to be on the same level. We don’t want to, and for many parents, they are like, “I want broccoli on a, I wish they ate more broccoli and less dessert,” because that’s kind of naturally what they want.
So really I highly recommend just let them be separate. If your kid eats nothing for dinner and you already plan dessert, still do dessert, I know it’s a hard pill to swallow. You don’t have to serve dessert of course, with every meal, but I highly recommend separating.
Jenn: I’m sure it’s very easy for parents tuning in to just give in to their kids’ desires to eat their favorite foods just because by the end of the day, they don’t want to have a difficult evening in the house.
Any, have you encountered this rather, and do you have any suggestions for how to combat this if you have encountered it frequently?
Jennifer: Sure. I mean, it’s been a, it’s been a couple years of pandemic, right? I would not fault or judge any parent who says, “I can’t deal with the fight right now or the tantrums or anything. I’m just going to serve foods that my child will like.”
If that’s where you’re at, that’s what you can do. And you have my full permission, right? Whatever you need to accept that about your situation, that’s fine. At the same time, if you do have a little capacity and you can kind of say, “Okay, I can handle the tantrums on Monday nights,” then Monday night is the night that you serve more variety.
And the other thing is you don’t have to put it on your child’s plate for it to be a food exposure. So if you make a meal and it’s mostly food that your child likes, but then there’s a couple things that your child doesn’t like, and you eat that, that’s okay.
It also makes a more balanced meal for you potentially, and you are getting more variety that you want to eat. So just because you make an entire thing does not mean that it’s wasted on your child, even if they choose not to eat it.
Jenn: One last question for you. If parents are eating poorly because they’re overwhelmed with kids, work, a pandemic, should they consider a diet or nutrition coach that can help the whole family get back on track?
And if yes, what qualifications should they be looking for?
Jennifer: If you’re really looking for someone to kind of help you develop a diet for your family, a dietician, a registered dietician is the person who’s actually going to have the expertise to help you with that.
You know, you might be able to find a health coach, but anybody can call themselves a health coach. So you have no idea what you’re getting. With a registered dietician, you know, they’ve gone to school, they’ve passed the test, they’ve done the rotations, all that sort of thing.
There’s also options where you can get, like, a registered dietician meal plan. We actually have one of those. It’s an easy one for families to use. And it’s because I was overwhelmed. And I was like, “I can’t think of dinner.”
And so I made it for myself and then I made it available to other families. But I think you don’t have to, like, overhaul your family eating in order to make changes. So, again, if you’re like, “Okay, we’ve been eating in a rut for…only when the kids eat for two years and I’m ready to break out of the rut,” add one meal, add it into the rotation.
And then when you’re ready, add another meal. These things do have a big impact over time, but they’re not as overwhelming. And they’re not as, kind of, scary. And they’re a lot easier to maintain over time.
Jenn: I think that’s a really great way to sum up this whole session. I could ask you thousands more questions for the next six hours, but you have way better things to do than to keep talking to me.
So Jennifer, I just want to say thank you so much for joining us to talk all about stress, meals, kids, you name it, you’ve done it. So thank you. This has been exceptional.
And for anybody tuning in, thank you for joining us. This is actually the end of the session. Until next time, be nice to one another, but most importantly, be nice to yourself. Jennifer, again, thank you so much and enjoy the rest of your day.
Jennifer: Thank you so much. Bye, bye.
Jenn: Thanks for tuning in to Mindful Things! Please subscribe to us and rate us on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Don’t forget, mental health is everyone’s responsibility. If you or a loved one are in crisis, the Samaritans are available 24 hours a day at 877.870.4673. Again, that’s 877.870.4673.
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The McLean Hospital podcast Mindful Things is intended to provide general information and to help listeners learn about mental health, educational opportunities, and research initiatives. This podcast is not an attempt to practice medicine or to provide specific medical advice.
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