Picky, Picky Kids: Eat It or Starve!

A recent study on selective eating has received a lot of attention recently in the news, covered in places like The Washington Post, Jane Brody’s Well column, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, and many more. But the media aren’t the only ones talking…so are parents.

Picky Picky Kids: Eat It or Starve!

The recent study on selective eating (extreme picky eating) in Pediatrics has some parents up in arms. The lead author, Dr. Nancy Zucker of Duke University’s medical school, suggests “health care providers should intervene at even moderate levels of (selective eating).” Why? Because these children aren’t just suffering from poor nutrition, but were found to be at higher risk for anxiety, depression and/or ADHD.

“Seriously?” “Eat what I served or starve.” That’s the response we’re hearing from some parents.

Let us explain why that sort of tough love might actually cause a kid to stop eating…permanently. For some children the desire to eat and satisfy hunger isn’t as strong as the food aversion. Food becomes the focus of not only the child’s fears, but the parent’s as well. The vicious cycle is difficult to understand for those who have never experienced it.

UntitledMost parents want their kids to be adventurous, healthy eaters, but many don’t know how to go about it. The old-school rule of “eat it or starve” may work for naturally eager eaters, but for more hesitant children, physiology (how the body functions) can interfere. If anxiety, a sensitive sensory system, or even something as common as heartburn is coupled with a demanding parent who insists a child finishes his vegetables – the results certainly will not be a child who loves vegetables. This combination may instead yield an anxious kid who associates physical and emotional discomfort with food. It can be debilitating and may lead to other diet-related health issues.

In defense of parents who have a child with extreme food aversions, often they’ve tried everything to help their child enjoy food. Understandably, some may have tried a little tough love because they just wanted their child to eat. Many are at their wit’s end before eventually seeking professional help from a pediatric feeding specialist. From there, it’s a slow process to bring a child back to nutritional and emotional health.

So for parents who don’t have a child with food aversions and consequently are aghast at this “ridiculous” study – be thankful you didn’t have to parent a child through the trials of selective eating. The research is clear. Tough love in this case is not the answer. Let’s offer these kids a lifeline, so they can enjoy happier mealtimes and grow to be healthy in all aspects of their lives.

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Pediatrician Nimali Fernando and feeding therapist Melanie Potock, authors of the forthcoming Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater (October), specialize in showing parents the way to joyful, nutritious mealtimes. Their proven strategies direct families past every roadblock, whether selective eating, different parenting styles, special needs, or medical issues such as sensory disorders.

Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, is an international speaker on the topic of pediatric feeding disorders. With more than 15 years of experience as a food therapist and eating coach for all children, including those with special needs, she is a go-to resource for anything related to kids and food. In 2010, Potock launched My Munch Bug, where she teaches parents and professionals how to raise healthy, happy eaters. Her advice has been shared in national publications, including Parents magazine, and popular special needs websites such as Generation Rescue.

Nimali Fernando, MD, MPH, is a pediatrician and the founder of the non-profit Doctor Yum Project, which teaches kids and their families how to cook and eat more healthfully (and to which the authors will donate a portion of their royalties). Her innovative practice, Yum Pediatrics, has gained local and national attention for its unique approach to keeping children healthy with a better diet. The first of its kind, it features a teaching kitchen, instructional garden, and other educational resources, making it a hot-spot for health education in her community. She is also a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

4 Responses to Picky, Picky Kids: Eat It or Starve!

  1. GaMomof5 says:

    It’s important that food is an enjoyable, social family together time as well as nutritious.
    I found that my kids with food aversions (from being foster kids) were full of anxiety, and food was part of their coping skills. New foods were very stressful.
    Then we had to move, and start over on stocking the fridge, freezer, and pantry.
    We were stretched thin financially, so sweets and junk food were not on our shopping lists. If we wanted Mac ‘n cheese, I made it from scratch. If the kids wanted chips or fries, again, I made them from scratch and oven baked to make them healthier. We started homeschool that year, so I cooked 3 meals/day, on a very regular schedule. My husband’s job also was all days, and he got home at the same time each day, so we started eating supper on time, very consistently.
    I was pleasantly surprised that the girls became open to trying more foods! Once our eating became more ‘clean’ with no processed foods, the flavor of food was more enjoyable by everyone. Then we did a cooking class together. The one ‘rule’ was that everyone had to taste each dish. Wow!! Our meal choices expanded by leaps and bounds that one year. Getting junk food out of our diets was eye opening. I never forced my kids to eat anything they didn’t want, but only offered healthy choices.
    Fast forward about 10 years, one daughter is a chef, the other makes very healthy meals for her family.
    There is hope for ‘food aversions’. Patience, removing junk, include the kids in cooking! ost of all, enjoy your children.

    • Melanie Potock says:

      Thank you for your insightful comment! It takes time and patience – and yes, we agree that including Parenting In the Kitchen is key!

  2. Tim Colvin says:

    Our son,Jude, has been “diagnosed” with food aversion. It was explained to me as similar to someone being afraid of a snake… He will literally move as far away from food as possible and say that it’s disgusting. Its traumatizing to him to think about it. Very frustrating. The doctors say he will “grow out of it…eventually and write it off as just being picky. He does eat a select.few things….popcorn, French fries, Apple slices(without peelings), peanut butter and a few chips. However, he may or may not eat them…depends on him. Popcorn and milk are a staple. As parents, it’s extremely frustrating..not being able to help or truly understand. It’s more frustrating when a teacher or doctor write it off as picky or just down right bad child. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    • Melanie Potock says:

      Hello Tim, Thank you for your patience – and my apologies for not seeing your comment sooner. When a child is diagnosed with a food aversion, he needs feeding therapy. Assuming that is in process with your son, I’d also like to suggest that you watch The Picky Eater Course on our website http://www.parentinginthekitchen.com It will lay the foundation you’ll need to understand his sensory system and why he may be protecting his body. Plus, it’s helpful to share with teachers and other family members, so that everyone knows how to support him. If you don’t have a feeding therapist, talk to you pediatrician about finding one in your area. You can also visit http://www.feedingmattters.org and you may find one via their resource directory. Best wishes and thank you again for your comment.