Overcoming Picky Eating
“There is an issue of vital importance that most well-meaning parents are not aware of: the modern diet that most children are eating today creates a fertile environment for cancer to emerge at a later age. [...] Childhood diets create adult cancers.”
Joel Fuhrman, M.D.
What we feed our children is one of the most important parts of parenthood. Without the proper nutrients, their bodies will not be able to function and heal properly and will not be able to withstand disease. Childhood obesity and childhood cancers are increasing at alarming rates and our kids are sicker than ever before.
From the suckers that kids get after their doctor appointment to the pizza parties they get at school, if they listen and behave, our children are born into a world that is not designed to help them succeed in eating healthy. Processed sugar and nutrient deficient, inflammatory food is used as reward everywhere we look. It’s time to take back control of our childrens’ diet and help them build a foundation of health that will last them a lifetime!
There is no such thing as kids food!
“Kids food” is a relatively new invention by the food manufacturing industry and their efforts to market to children. There is nothing magical in mac and cheese, chicken nuggets or peanut butter and jelly sandwich, for example, that makes them proper foods for children. There is nothing special about fruit snacks, goldfish or cheetos that make them a great snack for kids. On the contrary, these foods are poor in nutrients and enzymes and are promoting inflammation. They can cause our kids to be moody and irritable, and sleep and perform poorly.
Children are in even more need of nutrients, as their bodies and brains are growing and developing. Did you know that only about 20% of kids in the US are getting the recommended four to five servings of fruits and vegetables, each day. And as a “fun” fact, did you know that pizza sauce and french fries can be counted as vegetables, in schools?
Research has found that when kids experience a variety of flavors in the first year of life, both through breastfeeding as well as through solid foods, they are more likely to try new foods as they get older. Allow your child to experiment with many flavors, textures and colors as early as possible. Give your kids real, homemade food that hasn’t been processed and that’s what they will learn to love.
How do kids become picky eaters?
Between the age of 2 and around 5 there is a “normal” picky eating phase where kids will like one food today and dislike it tomorrow. Usually kids still have enough variety in their diet, over the course of a week, and are open to trying new things. As long as we focus on offering our kids real foods, even with the picky eating, they will still most likely get everything they need from their diet.
If it goes past this age and your child strongly prefers a certain category of foods, usually carbohydrate and sugar rich foods, and refuses most other foods, it may be time to do some digging into the why and how to correct this.
Abnormal gut flora is one reason why many kids become picky eaters. Gut flora is crucial to our immune system function. Unfortunately, some children are born with an imbalance in their gut flora or that balance is negatively impacted with time by toxins, formula feeding, antibiotics, unhealthy diet, living in an overly sanitized home, stress or poor sleeping habits.
When the gut flora is out of balance, irritation and intestinal damage follows, which can lead to many digestive issues like colic, constipation, diarrhea, reflux and food allergies and sensitivities, which leads to selective or picky eating.
The symptoms of food sensitivities are not always easy to spot as they can vary. Some of the most common symptoms that point to a possible food reaction are the following:
Bowel issues, especially constipation or diarrhea
Dark circles under the eyes
Getting sick often, especially if your child's pediatrician can't find "anything wrong"
Strong, recurrent cravings for a certain kind of food (this is most likely the food that is causing issues)
Sudden mood swings
Allergy testing will not identify the problem foods as they are not true allergies and do not follow a histamine response. Many doctors can help you take a food sensitivity test or you can complete a four to six weeks Elimination Diet. The most common allergens are gluten, dairy, and sugar. You can start by temporarily eliminating these three foods and if you don't notice many changes, you can try eggs, soy (it is estimated that 50% of those with reactions to dairy have reactions to soy also) and peanuts.
Sign up to my newsletter to get a free Elimination Diet guide with meal plan, recipes and shopping lists that will help make this transition much easier for you.
Finding potential food irritants is the first step but getting to the root of the issue and healing your child’s body will require you to work with a holistic doctor or practitioner, as they can guide you through different protocols you can use to help heal and rebalance your child’s digestive system.
Another reason for having a picky eater could be lifestyle choices. A hard truth to accept, as a parent, is that our children do not become carb or sugar addicted without our cooperation. Once children discover the addictive nature of processed sugar (studies have shown sugar stimulates the same part of the brain as cocaine), they will crave it and ask for it. The same goes for processed foods, as they can artificially stimulate the production of dopamine, causing your child to want more and more of it.
When we look at other countries around the world, we see that their diet is much healthier, with much less processed food. When we don’t buy the processed and sugary foods and don’t make them available, our kids don’t have the option to choose it. At least not at home. As a parent, you have the ability to take control and provide your child with nutrient-dense foods that will allow them to function, develop and heal properly and will support them in reaching their highest potential.
There are, of course, possible medical issues that lead to picky eaters and addressing these with the right practitioner is crucial to your child's wellbeing.
If your child is refusing most of the healthy foods you offer them and does not have an underlying medical condition, there is a lot you can do, on your own, to help them. Below I will list a few ideas of things you can try. It’s important to find what works for you and your child. It may take some trial and error but it is crucial you stay calm and consistent, no matter what method you try. And it’s important that you don’t give up. The first few days/weeks will be hard but it will pay off in the end.
While taking small steps proves very successful in most cases, some families have had success by making major dietary changes overnight, as long as the entire family is on board and prepared to overcome the toughest days. It took my step daughters a couple years to change from crying when they heard they were about to be fed a homemade dinner to eating almost everything that we currently make. They were used to eating mostly processed and fast food with minimal fruit and almost no veggies. Their diet is not perfect but it’s 100 times better than where we started. And their health is a wonderful display of the progress they made. Find what works best for you and your family and move forward with confidence.
Here is what we did. I call this method The Murphy Way
When I moved to the US I struggled with eating ‘American food.” I absolutely hated the pasta sauce that seemed to be in all the meals I once used to enjoy. For the first few weeks I ate A LOT of Chicken Alfredo. I had to force myself to eat many foods I didn't enjoy and was amazed at how much my taste buds changed after a while. Having gone through this transition myself, it made this journey with my step daughters easier. I had the confidence that all the hard work we were putting in, would pay off eventually.
This is a summary of the steps we took:
As a family, we started with one healthy, home cooked dinner a week.
It is best to start with meals that are similar in texture, taste and/or color to foods your kids currently enjoy and slowly venture out. For example, replace store bought mac and cheese with homemade mac and cheese and add peas, broccoli or another vegetable to it. The ultimate goal is to transform this meal into a veggie packed one by increasing the amount of veggies in it or replacing the entire pasta with a vegetable, like broccoli. How fast you can accomplish this, will depend on your kids.
After the first couple weeks we added fresh, homemade carrot, green apple or orange juice with the other six dinners.
Please only use juice if you are able to use a slow speed, masticating juicer. Limit the apples and oranges to no more than two, per child, due to the high sugar content. Sometimes we offered one piece of fresh fruit instead. This was a way to get a few more nutrients in their bodies faster.
Fun fact: did you know Gerson Institute uses these three juices as part of their cancer and chronic illness therapies?
Once the worst tears and gagging improved slightly (yes, there were a lot of long nights- you need to be mentally prepared for it) and we were able to expand the food list a little, we increased to two nights a week.
We didn’t offer any juice or fruit on those two nights.
We continued adding a night, based on how the kids were doing, until we had six homemade dinners, packed with veggies
It took us almost two years, filled with many valuable lessons, before we got to this point.
We allowed the kids to have one night a week when they got to choose their own dinner. It’s always been pizza. We eventually slowly fazed it out and five years later, we eat pizza only a few times a year (food allergies played into that decision).
We stopped buying cereal and started cooking real food for breakfast.
After dinner, we tackled breakfast. At this point, it was easier and faster, because the kids were used to the changes, had learned about the importance of proper nutrition and were starting to see some of the benefits. There was still some complaining and some tears but it wasn’t nearly as much as when we started.
We never really addressed lunch specifically as most lunches were eaten at school, where we were not present. We didn’t want to waste money on food that could possibly end up in the trash. We did stop buying junk food and started buying healthier options of foods they already enjoyed. For example, we now use sprouted grain bread or sourdough bread instead of the bleached white flour bread and we buy farm fresh organic, raw milk cheese, instead of conventional dairy. We still buy chicken nuggets and hot dogs, organic and gluten free and when possible purchased from local farmers.
After the first year, my husband no longer suffered from his annual sinus infections, and one of our daughters had a decrease in the frequency of her migraines (she notices now that most her migraines happen after a few days of eating processed foods). But the biggest improvement we saw was in our daughter who had asthma.
She was able to stop taking her daily asthma medication and two other daily allergy medications and no longer needed to use her emergency inhaler. In the past she had to use her emergency inhaler daily and she even had a couple 911 calls after gym class, because she was unable to breathe. We did use natural supplements to help her in this healing, along with changing her diet.
The food we eat provides all the building blocks for our cells. That’s why you often hear the saying “you are what you eat” (I would correct the saying to “you are what you eat AND digest”). When we eat healthy food we make healthy cells and we create a body that has amazing healing capabilities.
Here are some things we did to make the transition easier and successful:
We used a marble reward system
The kids got a certain amount of marbles for different actions. Eating dinner without complaining was one of those actions. The marbles could be traded for different rewards that the kids picked out ahead of time (a date with one of us, going to a movie etc)
Work on a rewards system with your kids to provide them with an incentive and motivation to want to make these changes.
If they were not able to finish dinner, it would be saved for next day’s breakfast
If your kids take a long time to eat, stay close by. Especially if you have a dog. If they are telling you they are not hungry I recommend saving it for next day. Otherwise kids may choose to skip dinners and fill up on breakfast and lunch instead.
We allowed the kids to have input by using a rating system for each food, from 1 to 10
This allowed the kids to have some control over the food they were eating. If two out of the three kids (this was before we had our son) rated a food 4 or under, we tried to only have that food on rare occasions, until their taste buds changed. Cauliflower and bell peppers used to be passionately hated by all three and now cauliflower fried rice is one of the favorite family meals. Miracles still happen. Don’t give up, stay consistent and you will succeed!
If a child really struggled with one of the foods and continued gagging, they had the option to exchange it for another healthy food
Usually a veggie was exchanged for another veggie, protein for protein and fruit for fruit. We tried to only do this in extreme circumstances so it didn’t become a habit. Making too many exceptions can cause more issues in the end and the kids could end up choosing the same foods over and over, leading to a limited diet, which is what we want to avoid.
We never excluded a food, unless someone was allergic or had a reaction to it
We took a break from it and tried it again in a few weeks. With time, the kids’ taste buds changed and even the worst foods turned into foods that the kids could tolerate.
The only exception to this was foods anyone was allergic or had a reaction to. We excluded gluten and dairy from our diet because a few of us have a hard time digesting it.
We stayed consistent even when it was hard and doubt was creeping in
The kids need to understand they do not have the option not to eat a meal, unless they are not hungry. That simply means they have to eat the same food the next morning. If they learn they can get processed food later, they will skip the meal and fill up on snacks or junk food.
We allowed a lot of time for dinners
Expect dinners to take much longer. Some kids will need time to smell, touch and explore foods first. They may take long pauses between each bite or take the smallest bites possible. Be patient and allow your kids the time they need. Keep encouraging them. You don’t have to sit with them the whole time but plan on staying close to them until they are done.
We ate dinners together, as a family
Eating together is extremely important. When you start planning through the timeline, keep this in mind. For example, if you are only around at breakfast time, start by transitioning breakfast food and leave dinners for later. Use these mealtime as opportunities to connect and interact with your kids and make the table a place for positive memories.
We made a jar with fun questions that we all took turns answering. The kids were allowed to add their own questions and we rotated through who picked the question every night. (Example: if you had all the money in the world, what would you do with it? Or if you could have any superpower, which one would you choose?)
We all ate the same food
I can’t overstate how important it is that everyone in the house eats the same foods as your child. This means that if you haven’t transitioned to healthy eating, this is the best time for you to join the party as well. Children need to see their parents eating the same. Science has shown that they are more likely to try new things when an adult has tried it first.
If someone else in the house eats a different diet, it may be good to have them eat at a different time, until your kids are fully adjusted.
We remained calm
Stay calm through your child’s struggle. There may be some tears or temper tantrums. It’s crucial you don’t give up or give in. Stay positive and keep encouraging them. It will only last a few days or weeks, depending on your child.
We stopped buying junk food
If you don’t want your child to eat a certain food, don’t buy it anymore. They can’t choose it if it’s not in the house. Purchase real foods and allow your children to have input on which ones they prefer, when possible.
I hope our journey encourages you. In the beginning, both my husband and I were scared at what this transition would do to our relationship with the girls. I was stepping into my role as their step mom and we didn’t want to completely turn their world upside down by making major changes in a short time frame. And at the time, their mom was not on the same page and she allowed the kids to eat a lot of fast food and junk food, which they loved. And they lived with her half the time. It made the journey even harder but we persevered because we knew their health was more important and that someday they will understand the why and be grateful for it.
We had a mantra we kept repeating to the kids, whenever it was hard: We love you too much to feed you junk food. Your health and your future matter to us and we understand it’s hard but we are doing what we believe is best for you.
And now that we are on the other side, I can tell you that it was all worth it and I would do it all over. Our journey was far from perfect and we made mistakes along the way but we learned and we grew through each challenge and we didn’t give up.
God put me in charge of my biological and bonus children’s diet and I wanted to know that if someday they got diagnosed with any kind of illness, I can have peace in knowing that I have done my very best to avoid that from happening.
Over the years, I learned a few tips, rules and ideas, either from our own journey or from other parents or books. I will share them with you below, to help make this transition more successful:
Forcing kids to eat doesn’t work. If they refuse the food, you can take it away, without reacting to it. But do NOT provide any substitutes, no exceptions. They will eventually be hungry enough that they will start eating what they are offered.
Do not let your child fill up on what they like on their plate, first. When they are not hungry anymore they will simply stop eating. For my toddler, I start with about ¼ of the portion of each food and he knows that he can get more as soon as he finishes everything on his plate.
Allow your child’s digestive system to rest and don’t give snacks between meals and don’t use food as a pacifier or a distraction. Allow you children to come to the table hungry and they will eat more and be more open to trying new foods. If your child REALLY needs a snack, offer a piece of fruit that is easy to digest and won’t fill them up.
Oftentimes kids, especially younger ones, will ask for food when they are bored. Find different activities to help your child get through it. Stickers, painting, going outside, reading are just a few suggestions of activities you can encourage.
Don’t use (sugary) food as bribe. If you have a dessert planned for the evening, for example, you can use the natural consequence approach and simply let your child know that as soon as they finish their dinner, they CAN eat their dessert. Don’t use dessert as a reward for eating. If they don’t finish their dinner, do not offer dessert. And stay consistent despite all the tears that may follow. It’s only temporary. When your kids see you mean business and won’t give in, they will start eating.
Kids need to eat certain foods multiple times before they start liking it, especially if their taste buds are used to processed foods. Keep offering it to them and the more they taste it the more likely they are to eventually like it or at least tolerate it.
You don’t have to start with a full meal if that’s too hard. You can start by adding fruits and veggies into your child’s diet, one by one. Or by replacing an item at a time. Find what works best for you and your child.
Jennifer Scribner, NTP recommends that kids start taking one bite of a new food each day, for two weeks. If the kids like it after two weeks, you keep it in the diet. If not, try the next one. If this seems easier, it may be a great place to start.
Jennifer also recommends that If your child throws up the food, it’s important you stay calm and say “Oh dear, the food fell out. We’ll just have to try this again tomorrow.” This will help your child know that throwing up is not something they can do to avoid eating the food. If your child throws up several days in a row or you see any extreme behavior changes, consult a occupational therapist, speech therapist or other professional that can help
As long as there are no underlying problems and you stay consistent and calm, your child will resist less, with time
Allowing your child to go hungry because they refuse the food they are offered does NOT make you a bad parent. It makes you a parent who is determined to give their very best for their children. When your kids get hungry enough, they will start eating the food you are offering.
Disease Proof Your Child- Feeding Kids Right by Joel Fuhrman, M.D.
From Mac and Cheese to Veggies, Please by Jennifer scribner, NTP
French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon
Cure Your Child with Food by Kelly Dorfman, MS, LND