Dr. Heather Maguire is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA-D) and the author of the parent training manual, Get Ready… Get Set… Go! It’s Time to Create Behavior Change! As the mother of two young children, she applies her knowledge of behavioral science to everyday parenting. Visit her website www.drheathermaguire.com for more information.
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Help! My Child is a Picky Eater!
By Dr. Heather Maguire
Kids, food, and behavior… Where should I even start? A story from my own childhood comes to mind. When I was a toddler, I decided that the only food I wanted to eat was saltine crackers. Being a stubborn individual even at such a young age, I gave my mother a run for her money. She offered me peanut butter and jelly, but I said, “No!” She put cereal in front of me, but I refused to touch it. At dinnertime I refused to even look at the spaghetti she had made. In situations like this, what’s a parent to do?! Now that I’m a mother myself, I have come to realize that food can be one of the most challenging parts of parenting. As parents, we are charged with caring for the health and wellbeing of our kids, but it is not possible to force children to eat what they do not want to eat. No parent wants his or her children to “starve,” so we are tempted to cave in to our their requests. Recently I overheard a mother explain that her pediatrician recommended letting her toddler snack on whatever he wanted during the day, as long as she supplemented his nutrition with a popular meal replacement beverage. I’m not saying there aren’t cases where extreme measures are warranted, but to me this sounded like a horrible long-term solution to picky eating! Looking through the lens of applied behavior analysis, here are six strategies that have helped me tame the beast of the picky eater in my own home. I hope they will help you, too!
- Say goodbye to packaged snacks
You’ve probably heard the old saying, “If they’re hungry, they’ll eat.” This is very simple, but very true! One way to encourage children to eat is to make sure they’re actually hungry when mealtime comes around. This may mean eating less during the periods in between meals. Now I am not suggesting that you cut out snacking all together, but you can control what snacks you offer your children. Personally, I have made the decision to only offer fruits and veggies as snack options in between meals. As opposed to snacks like chips, cookies, and crackers, fresh produce is less likely to curb one’s appetite for more than a short while. I am not saying you have to cut out packaged foods completely, but it may be better to serve these items right after meals or just occasionally as a special treat rather than as snacks.
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- Timing is everything
As parents, we often have to be strategic in interactions with our children. If Sofia is feeling under the weather, didn’t sleep well the night before, and had a rough day at school, it is probably not be the right day to offer her a new food or try to get her to eat a food she has previously rejected. Sounds obvious, right? Well, let me share where parents often go wrong. Rather than using this strategy proactively, they use it reactively. Once they place food in front of Sofia and she refuses to try it, then they give her a preferred food. Unfortunately this often results in a pattern of food refusal that can hang around long after the bad day has been forgotten. Therefore, try to prevent food refusal by offering preferred foods on the hard days, but do your best not to cave in once undesired behavior has been displayed.
- Dangle the carrot
This is a simple, yet scientifically verified truth that can be applied to several areas of life. In food terms it equates to, “After you eat your vegetables, then you can have dessert.” Now, this does not mean that you need to offer dessert or other junk food to your children on a daily basis. Rather, choose foods that you feel comfortable offering to your child on a consistent basis (e.g., juice, crackers, popcorn, etc.). In order for this to work, there are two key things to keep in mind. First, the food has to be something your child really likes. Second, this strategy will work best if you keep your “carrot” valuable by not offering it to your child in other circumstances.
- Sometimes easier is better
This strategy is specifically geared towards younger toddlers who are still developing fine motor skills. As a human species, we are more likely to do things when they are easier, and it takes more motivation to do things that are difficult. Therefore, even if your son or daughter can independently eat, you may want to help them… at least with their first few bites. You may find that after the first few bites your child eats independently. Why is that so, you ask? Without getting too technical, food is naturally rewarding when we are hungry and so our bodies encourage us to keep eating until we are full.
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