Helping Your Picky Eater

Is your child a “Picky Eater?” Does he eat only 3 things? Does she reject anything new?  Do you prepare a separate meal just for her?  As a mom whose kiddo used to eat just a few bites at every meal, I feel your pain!  As a parent, your #1 job is to grow your kid, and that means getting them to eat.  In today’s world, that’s easier than it sounds, especially for those who have picky eaters.

The Problem

While some level of food avoidance is perfectly normal for young children, it’s NOT normal or healthy to be restricted to only a few foods for a long period of time.  Because the early years are so important for health and well-being, I would advise against waiting for your kids to “grow out” of picky eating.  They will miss out on basic nutrients for growing and thriving.

It wasn’t always so complicated.  Do you remember knowing many picky eaters in your childhood? It was probably as rare as childhood obesity is today. So what happened?

Common Causes of Picky Eating

Based on my research and clinical experience, I’ve found the following to be the most common causes of picky eating:

  1. Gut troubles
  2. Brain troubles
  3. Psychosocial troubles

Gut Troubles

As Hippocrates said, “All disease begins in the gut.” When your child’s gut is hurting, he won’t be comfortable, and eating won’t be fun.  Remember the last time you had a tummy ache and didn’t want to eat? I had a stomach bug not too long ago, and didn’t really eat for 3 days!  Nothing sounded or tasted good.

Now imagine a low level of tummy discomfort in your child, and imagine how that might affect food intake and food choices.  Might that cause what we call picky eating?  Signs of a hurting gut might be bloating, gas, nausea, constipation, diarrhea, frequent ear infections, sugar cravings, and more. Often, theses symptoms are caused by an imbalance in gut bacteria, where the bad bugs outnumber the good.

Likewise, if your child has food sensitivities or food allergies, she is in a state of chronic gut inflammation.  Two of the most common food sensitivities are gluten and dairy.  Moreover, these foods can literally cause addiction-like responses that cause your child to only want Goldfish crackers and mac and cheese.  So maybe it’s not picky eating so much as a food addiction!

Imbalanced gut bacteria, food sensitivities, and/or “addictions” all can lead to major nutrient deficiencies because your kids are simply not eating a wide range of foods.  Furthermore, when the gut is imbalanced, the brain may be affected too. Did you know that children with brain disorders like ADHD, autism, and anxiety are also likely to have gut problems?

To complicate matters, nutrient deficiencies can also WORSEN picky eating.  For example, zinc deficiency can cause poor taste perception, which is not helpful if you want your kids to ENJOY their food.  Along with zinc, low vitamin B12 has been correlated with low appetite.

Brain Troubles

In addition to gut problems contributing to brain problems like ADHD, some children have neurological “hard-wiring” that results in sensory integration problems related to the process of tasting and eating.  Some kids are also born with oral-motor problems that contribute to feeding difficulties.  Fortunately, these can usually be treated in occupational and/or feeding therapy.  And, of course, nutritional therapy can also help support these efforts.

Psychosocial Troubles

Here, I’m referring to what your child experiences with you, other caretakers, and the wider culture.  Be honest:  Are YOU a picky eater?  Do YOU eat your vegetables?  Is there stress around mealtime?  Are meals more entertaining than nourishing? Do you bribe your kids with dessert and sweets? Do you usually give in to giving the Goldfish because you just don’t want to fight?

We are all doing our best as parents, and I believe in GOOD ENOUGH parenting, because who has time to be perfect? However, I’d encourage you to think about the ways in which your own actions might be helping or hurting.  I advise all parents to follow Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility Model for feeding kids.  Basically, parents are responsible for WHAT, WHEN, and WHERE kids eat. Kids are responsible for IF and HOW MUCH.  You will have peaceful meals when you stay in your lane!

Finally, much has been written about our horrible food culture wherein “kid” food = highly processed and addictive foods usually  low in nutrients. Please give your kids the same nutrient dense foods that your best self would eat.  There is no need for special “kid” foods.  While they make the food manufacturers a ton of money, these are usually the poorest quality foods that anyone can eat, young or old.

How to Help Your Picky Eater

In order to end picky eating, you must heal the body and the brain with a nutrient dense, anti-inflammatory diet.

Here are 3 things you can do TODAY to help your picky eater:

  1. REMOVE inflammatory foods. Start with a gluten-free, dairy-free, low sugar diet for 3-4 weeks.  Removing these foods will go a long way toward healing the gut and brain problems mentioned above.  If this sounds intimidating, call me!  I’ve helped lots of people with this, and it’s really not that hard once you start.
  2. ADD nutrient-dense, REAL foods. In these same 3 weeks, add some extra protein, fat, and fruits and veggies.  Again, only REAL food can heal the gut and brain.  Introduce some REAL food supplements like pickles, sauerkraut, and home made bone broth for gut healing.  If your kiddo is SUPER picky, you might want to consider adding pill form supplements while you’re transitioning to REAL food.  Your car cannot run on an empty tank, and neither can your child!
  3. RELAX. Transitioning from a Standard American Diet (SAD) to a nutrient-dense diet one takes some time and attention.  Your child will sense your own anxiety around food, and will respond accordingly.  Take a deep breath and just begin!

What questions do you have?  Feel free to comment below, I am here to help…

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