Picky Eating a Problem? Here's a Solution...

You know you’re the mom of a picky eater when….

You think kids who eat things with mixed textures and who don’t hesitate to try new foods are like magical mythical unicorns.

Preparing family meals = cooking two separate dishes- the regular family meal and a special meal for your child who won’t touch the regular meal with a ten-foot pole.

There is only one restaurant within a 25 mile radius where your child will eat.

You have to pack an extra suitcase of picky-eater-approved-foods when you travel.

If any of this sounds familiar, I feel your pain.

When my son, H, was three-years-old, he began refusing many of his favorite foods. Before I knew it, he went from being a picky eater (having a wide variety of foods, 30 or more, but resistant when it came to particular foods) to being a problem eater (having fewer than 20 foods in his diet and having extreme reactions like gagging, vomiting, and temper tantrums to new foods). Click here for a picky eater vs problem eater pdf.

My anxiety about the rapidly diminishing variety in his diet and the lack of nutrients he was getting led me to the work of registered dietician, therapist, and child feeding specialist Ellyn Satter.

Though I was aware that H’s sensory processing challenges played a role in his problem eating, I still felt guilty, like it was a reflection of my parenting failure.

Satter eased my guilt. In her book, Child of Mine, she explains that all children are skeptical of unfamiliar food and take time to learn to enjoy it.” She goes on to explain that all children, even ones with underlying sensory processing challenges who tend to be especially skeptical, are even slower to warm up to unfamiliar foods, and have sensitivities to tastes and textures, can learn “to eat a variety of food, provided they have regular and unpressured opportunities to learn.”

Wait a minute. All children tend to be picky eaters? And even the ones like H who are considered “problem eaters” can learn to enjoy food? Ahhhh. Sigh of relief.

Now, what does regular and unpressured opportunities to learn actually mean?

Satter’s feeding model for toddlers through adolescents (it’s a little different for infants), based on what she calls The Division of Responsibility, is simple:

  • Parents are responsible for what, when, and where.
  • Children are responsible for how much and whether.

Here’s what this looks like…

I decide that dinner is going to be grilled chicken, steamed broccoli, and gluten-free rolls with butter (what) served at the dining room table (where) at 5:30pm (when). He decides that he’ll eat the roll first (whether), take one bite of chicken (how much), then declare he’s done.

Since it’s not my job to decide how much H eats or whether he eats certain foods, I refrain from pressuring him...which means I’m banned from saying any iteration of the following:

“What do you mean you’re done, you hardly ate anything. You can’t get up until you eat at least a few bites of broccoli and some more chicken.”

“Great job, H! You ate some broccoli!”

“Honey, if you don’t eat any broccoli, you cannot have dessert.”

“You cannot just eat a roll for dinner, please, for the love of God, eat the darn chicken!”

There’s no praising, no reminding, no badgering, no rewarding or applauding, and no withholding dessert until he eats some veggies.

My responsibilities are to matter-of-factly (no pressure) serve healthy foods, again and again (regular opportunities) as part of family meals, to eat and enjoy the food, and allow H to pick and choose as he pleases from the foods I’ve prepared.

Here’s Satter’s detailed breakdown of the parents’ feeding responsibilities (click here to download Satter’s Division of Responsibility pdf). They include:

  • Choosing and preparing the food
  • Providing regular meals and snacks
  • Making eating times pleasant
  • Modeling how to behave at family mealtime
  • Being considerate of children’s lack of food experience without catering to likes and dislikes (no short-order cooking!)
  • Including one food item (Satter suggests bread, crackers, or pasta) that you know your child will eat at each meal
  • Not letting children have anything between meal and snack times (except water)

Satter assures us that when we follow the division of responsibility with feeding, our kids, even the problem eaters, will learn to be comfortable with all kinds of foods. Her motto is, “when parents do their jobs with feeding, children do their jobs with eating.”

Wait, you’re thinking, I don’t think you understand. My child literally screams uncontrollably at the sight of an unfamiliar food. There’s no way in hell this feeding model will work for us.

I had the exact same thoughts...until I became desperate enough to give it a go.

Here’s what happened…

At dinner time, instead of preparing two separate meals, I prepared one and put everything on the table, family style. I included one thing- crackers and hummus- I knew H would eat. We sat down at the table to eat and my husband, A, and I began serving ourselves.

H sat there with a puzzled look on his face, wondering what in the world was going on. “Honey, take whatever you’d like to eat,” I explained as A and I began to dig in. Still confused, H reluctantly took a giant handful of crackers and placed the ramekin of hummus next to his plate.

“I want a tortilla and some yogurt,” he demanded.

“This is what’s for dinner tonight, you can help yourself to anything on table,” I replied, consciously trying to sound neutral and matter-of-fact, then returning to my meal and my conversation with A.

Outraged, H continued to demand a tortilla and yogurt, his intensity escalating.

You are calm, you are neutral, you are the picture of matter-of-fact, I coached myself internally before repeating, “This is what’s for dinner tonight.”

Not one to give up easily, H continued protesting, ahem, screaming.

Stay the course, I thought as I shot A a nervous glance. It was like sleep training - if we gave in now, we’d really be screwed.

H ate his crackers and hummus but continued protesting for the duration of the meal. To our amazement, A and I held steady and didn’t succumb. Have I mentioned that H’s protesting involves screaming as if he’s being tortured? It’s pretty impressive (God help us!).

Several times throughout the meal, I caught myself wanting to say things like, “Honey, just try the chicken, I know you’ll like it,” or “Just take one bite and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat anymore” or “How can you say you don’t like it if you’ve never even tried it?!”

I was surprised by how hard it was to refrain from bribing, negotiating, badgering, and pleading; it made me realize that these methods of persuasion had become integral parts of our mealtimes.

H carried on throughout the meal and didn’t touch any of the other foods.

Before bed that night, I reread some of the passages I’d underlined in Satter’s blogs for support and reassurance…

“Your child wants to eat and he wants to grow up to eat the food you eat. Beyond doing your part with structured, sit-down family meals and snacks, you don’t have to do anything to get it to happen. Just be there and enjoy your own food.”

“Whether your child is picky, eats too much or too little, or is too fat or too thin, the solution is the same: do your jobs with feeding and let your child do his jobs with feeding.”

Ok, Ellyn, let’s do this! I thought.

The next night at dinner, it was more of the same- H protesting, A and I working extremely hard to stay neutral and not lose our cool. We stayed the course and lo and behold, after a couple weeks, things began to settle down.

H was still protesting, but with less intensity. He wasn’t exactly trying new foods, but mealtimes were starting to become more pleasant - sticking to my feeding responsibilities and letting go of the need to control what and how much H was eating was liberating. Progress!

A month in to the new feeding model, my anxiety resurfaced - though there was less angst around mealtimes, H still wasn’t trying anything new. I voiced my concern to his OT who, having received special training in feeding therapy, immediately came up with a game plan.

The first step was to make a list of his preferred foods and of the new foods I wanted to introduce. Each week, she and I collaborated on a combination of preferred and new foods to bring to his session. After warming up in the gym, H became a “food detective,” exploring new foods under the careful guidance of his OT to regulate his arousal and prevent him from becoming overstimulated. (Click here for more information on treating problem eating).

The combination of Satter’s feeding model and H’s weekly food detective work was a winner - he began trying new foods! It was hard for A and I to keep our excitement to ourselves (remember, no praising!), so we silently celebrated while nonchalantly pretending not to notice when H helped himself to some chicken or took a small bite of a turkey burger.

While H has by no means morphed into a foodie, there has been a shift in his arousal level around new foods (no more massive meltdowns) and in his willingness to try new things. But, the best thing about adopting Satter’s feeding model has been being able to let go of my guilt around his feeding issues and learning to trust that if I do my jobs with feeding, he’ll do his.

Do you have a picky or problem eater? What are your biggest challenges? What have you tried that has helped and what have you tried that hasn’t? Leave your comments below, the Sensory Mom community and I would love to hear from you.


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Hi! I'm Cameron, mom of two incredible, "differently-wired" boys who have sensory processing challenges, wife of a nerdy surfer, mindfulness practitioner and Parenting Coach with master's degrees in education and psychology.