How to deal with picky eaters (even if one of them is you)

Many of us are or live with picky eaters –  whether they are your kids who won't eat anything but hot dogs, chicken fingers or mac and cheese or your partner who seems to be doing everything possible to sabotage your efforts to change the family meal plan. This is a tough situation, made even more challenging when the positive changes are necessary for healing, getting your energy back or losing weight. 

Making dietary changes in the presence of a picky eater (or two), including if it is you, can have a positive outcome. Below are three primary factors within your home that could be preventing you from making the changes. I also discuss strategies for helping to overcome the challenges of picky eating so you can all begin to feel your best.

If you are a picky eater

If the picky eater is you, it is important to explore your resistance to making that change and taking personal responsibility for your actions. 

Habit is one of the most powerful predictors of eating behavior. Most of your food choices are made out of habit, with picky eating often being a continuation of childhood eating habits. Most adult picky eaters were picky eaters as a child, and many had parents who were overly concerned with food (either positively or negatively), were obsessive about plate cleaning, or at the other end, catered to whatever the child wanted to get them to eat something, anything. 

Your eating preferences could actually just be old habits waiting to be changed.

The preferred foods of the majority of picky eaters are highly processed, highly refined and full of chemicals and preservatives, and loaded with unhealthy sugars and fats. I have yet to come across a picky eater whose food of choice is broccoli!

This is often due to hanging on to old behaviors that may have served you well in your childhood but no longer have many benefits in adulthood. The goal is to change those habits so that you no longer view your food as a battleground, but rather as a source of true nourishment and pleasure. 

Mindset plays a vital role in making and implementing these changes. Your mindset can either help you, by motivating you and encouraging or it can hold you back. When you find yourself faced with old behaviors, there are a few actions you can try:

  • Make a conscious choice. It is up to you to decide that you and your energy, vitality, health are more important than the pizza, croissant, donut, bag of chips or other less than optimal food of choice. You do have a choice. Recognize that you can either be healthy or have those unhealthy foods. Research has proven that being internally motivated is essential to building habits that continue. 
  • Make a firm commitment to yourself. Commit to feeding yourself nourishing foods for just one day. Once you get through that day, make a commitment to yourself for the next day (or start with eating healthier alternatives on weekdays only). If a whole day is too daunting, try committing to one meal, or even just one bite! The most effective way to create lasting change is to break new habits down into the smallest possible increments you are able to handle. 
  • Make over your pantry. Remove foods that will not tempt you, you do not need to eat or do not support your health. This will eliminate the need to exercise your willpower at home, making more positive choices easier. Rid your fridge and pantry of all foods you know are not in your best interests to be consuming and replace with the foods you want to be eating. If that food you are removing food is for other members of your household, request their support in getting rid of that food. It helps to make it a family affair. Clean out the kitchen, and donate what you can to a charity or those in need. 

If your child or children are picky eaters

Neophobia, or fear of new foods, is a well-documented phase that many children go through. Picky eating, where new and familiar foods are rejected is not normal. It has, however, been normalized.

The current generation of children are catered to now in ways they never were in generations past. The entire concept of ‘child friendly’ or ‘kid’ food is a relatively new construct. Food preferences are more nurture than nature. Children tend to eat the foods of their culture, or their parents. The world over children eat the same foods as their parents. 

Here we are eating what has become known as the Standard American (Canadian) Diet, the results of which are increased rates of obesity, diabetes and malnutrition. This does seem counter-intuitive, but studies have shown that the most overweight children (and adults) are also the most malnourished. This is due to the huge nutrient deficiencies found in many of our over-processed, manufactured, convenience foods. Taste and preference develop early in childhood, so if a preference (and thus a habit) for specific sugary, fatty, salty foods are created; this preference is likely to persist into adulthood.

This makes it particularly important to notice and address picky eating habits early, in a positive and reinforcing way. Some ideas to help support this are:

  • Set a good example. Become aware of the words you use and the way you express your thoughts and feelings around food. Do you tend to hesitate when faced with a new ingredient or a food you do not like is part of a dish? Show your children your willingness and adaptability around new foods. They can only be what they see. If you refuse to eat certain (or all) vegetables or try new foods, they will have no interest in doing so either! 
  • Involve children in grocery shopping, meal planning and cooking (where appropriate). This gives them a sense of contribution and they may get to pick their favorite foods to incorporate into a menu. You can always make more nourishing versions of family favorites. 
  • Stop giving your children soda or sugary juice. These are highly processed and sugar laden resulting in a hyper-stimulation and desensitization of their developing palates. It also affects behavior and can even damage the brain and neural pathways. Be aware that juices can sometimes contain even more sugar than soda! If you offer juice to your children, don't make it into a special treat – elevating it to this level may encourage them to want it more. Consider trying to dilute juice with as much water as possible. Also, opt for juices that have 'no added sugar' – while I don't promote drinking juice generally, these brands of juice are preferable than many others on the market.
  • As with you and your kitchen clean-out mentioned above, stop buying foods you prefer your child not eat. If there are no ‘kid foods’ in the house, it does become easier to support your child in eating healthier whole foods. If you do buy some 'kid foods' for your pantry, know the ingredients that are in them – always read the labels and select the brands that contain less sugars and salts, and more wholesome, organic ingredients. These brands tend to be better than many kid-targeted alternatives that are available.
  • Prepare only one meal for each mealtime. You are not a restaurant. Preparing a protein and a variety of vegetable dishes for each meal will give your child options while ensuring that the necessary nourishment is available. This post provides helpful tips for introducing new foods to children.

if your Spouse/Partner/Co-worker/Friend/Family Member... is a picky eater

Most of the diet/eating habit saboteurs in your life are not trying to be mean or intentionally thwart your efforts. You are, unfortunately, surrounded by such people none-the-less. They can be found at your office, in your carpool, even sitting around your dining room table. 
For some, it can be about feeling insecure about their own choices. Recent research has shown that when loved ones are critical about your choices, it is often a projection of their own insecurities. That means that when your partner wants to order dessert, you may be criticized, shamed, ostracized or cajoled when you try to decline. This helps the saboteur feel better regarding their own choice and has little, if anything to do with you. 

Others might be a little insecure and frightened by the changes in your life. This may lead to a fear of you leaving them behind once you have regained your health or vitality. This is common reason a spouse may refuse to adopt a new eating plan with you. Here are a few tactics to help overcome these challenges:

  • Explain your reasoning. Be proud of your efforts and to those who are commenting or asking, your friends, family and coworkers, that you are making these changes for your health. Explain the connection between your health goals and your eating choices. 
  • Enlist their help and support. Your grandmother may really think that by offering your second helpings or insisting you eat dessert is her expression of being loving and helpful. Take her aside and make her a part of your team by asking for her help and support through your journey. 
  • Get off the moral high ground. If you happen to be the one preaching your new found healthy eating religion to everyone, make an effort to scale it back. Make sure you let friends and family members know that your choices are about you, not in any way about them. 
  • Be firm, but polite. It is perfectly acceptable to not give in to whatever pressure tactics may be being used and just say ‘no thank you’ with a bright smile. There is no need to feel obligated to explain. Be secure in your choices.

There is so much power in food choices: the power to heal, the power to regain and reclaim your health, wellness and ultimately your life.  

Taking a moment to understand if your own resistance to new, healthier food choices is keeping you from having all you want in your life, and for your health, is an important step to take. Supporting your children so they too can enjoy eating healthy foods which in turn will allow them thrive developmentally. This, in turn can have will have a huge positive impact on the long term development of their brains and bodies. Understanding the motivation behind the actions of the people around you can help make your choices easier to make and your new habits easier to keep. 

A few, simple steps, with regards to the food choices for you and your loved ones will empower you to make a large-scale positive impact on your health and your life! 

For more about nutrition, tips to improve overall health and wellbeing, recipes and meal plans, visit Integrative Health.

Related posts:
What are food sensitivities?
5 things to make a healthy lunchbox 
5 tips for introducing new foods to children
10 shifts to shun sugar
5 ways we sabotage healthy eating and how to avoid them

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