What can I feed my picky eaters that will make everyone happy?

Q: Both my 2 and 4 year old girls are very picky. If it's not mac and cheese, hot dogs, chicken nuggets or french fries they won't eat it. I know that my 2 year old (who's autistic) has sensory issues, but I have tried everything to get them to eat other things. I've even breaded and baked homemade chicken nuggets and they won't eat them. I'm at a loss what to do. My husband is frustrated, and that's not helping. Any suggestions?

A: Having a picky eater on your hands is a constant struggle – on one hand, you don’t want food and eating to be a source of conflict as there are three meals to contend with each day. On the other hand, you want your child to eat a wide array of foods so that she has the exposure to the tastes, smells and nutrients. Know that you are not alone – my very own 2 year old requested chicken nuggets for breakfast this morning!

This is especially true for your daughter who has been diagnosed with Autism. It is all too common to have picky eaters between the ages of 2 and 7, but rest assured that it will not affect their growth or development.

Here are few suggestions:

Remain in the Neutral Zone

Your girls recognize the power they have over being picky, not trying new foods and how much it negatively impacts you and your husband. Your daughters may be refusing different foods in an effort to exert their own control. Offer different foods amongst familiar foods, and don’t make a big deal about it. It may take 10-15 exposures to one new food before your children will even give it the time of day.

Don’t Take it Personally

Your daughters’ picky eating is not a reflection of your mothering or fathering. Know that this is a battle that many parents struggle with on a daily basis. Mantra: stay neutral and move on with meals.

Don’t Break It Down Today

Instead of focusing on what your child ate over the course of one day, focus on what your child ate over the course of the week. Keep a journal if you need to so that you can see what your girls are eating over a longer span of time. They may surprise you.

Give them Choices

You may want to offer your girls other types of food and give them 2 choices. Perhaps if they feel they feel that they have a choice in the matter, they may feel more in control and be less resistant to trying foods outside of their usual repertoire.

Cook Together

Perhaps if your daughters help you to prepare different types of foods, they may be more likely to try them. Try making pizza together and let your girls select their own toppings, for example. Pancakes are another great option where you can add different types of fruit compotes – sweet and delicious!

Consult with an Occupational Therapist

If your 2 year old daughter is showing an aversion to food that is ‘too loud’ or that may smell ‘weird’, or if your daughter cannot tolerate food that is wet or slimy on her hands or mouth, you may want to consult with an Occupational Therapist for evaluation for a Sensory Processing Disorder. For some children diagnosed with Autism, chewing can actually negatively impact their sense of balance!

Overall, remain neutral and don’t yell, punish or bribe your daughters when it comes to eating. Similar to potty training, just let them do it at their own time and pace. I encourage both you and your husband to take the pressure off of yourself when it comes to your daughters’ picky eating.

Answered by Dr. Elizabeth Matheis

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