Category Archives: Parenting Skills

The Super Picky Eater

photo of a child disgusted with food

If you have a “typical” kid, just check out my basic overview of toddler nutrition. If you’re one of the 30 – 50% of parents of toddlers/preschoolers who would describe your child as a “picky eater” then check out and try my tips for picky eaters. But, if your kid is a whole other level of picky eater – where you’ve tried all those tips, and your kid still eats a very limited set of foods, then this post is for you.

And I’m here in solidarity with you! I could easily make a list for you of all the foods my 8 year old is willing to eat. And they’re specific – I can’t say he eats yogurt. I can say he eats yoplait brand only and only these flavors: strawberry, strawberry-banana, and blueberry. When I say he eats chicken mcnuggets, I don’t mean any kind of breaded chicken product, I mean ONLY the ones from McDonald’s (or Wendy’s in a pinch).

And if you’re judging me for feeding my kid McNuggets, then here’s the thing – it’s the only meat he has ever put in his mouth in pretty much his entire life. And if you’re judging me for that, well, then you’ve never lived with a super picky eater, and this is not the post for you.

Why are some kids super picky?

There can be a wide variety of reasons. A child with an extremely strong sense of smell may be overloaded while eating – a child with a very limited sense of smell may not enjoy food. A child who had a traumatic experience with choking may be very hesitant to eat after that. Children who have food sensitivities may not be able to articulate them or understand them – they just know that sometimes they feel icky after they eat so they just eat less.

Many extreme picky eaters are either autistic, or have anxiety, or have sensory issues. Or like my son, they may have all three of these challenges.

This blog post, written by an autistic nine year old has given me the best insight into “The Reasons [They] Don’t Like to Eat.

“Sometimes I eat something and it tastes nice; it is the right color and it feels nice and soft in my mouth. But then some days I eat what you tell me is the same and it isn’t the same… I get upset. You ruined it. … You damage it if it has sauce or potatoes on it. Then it is not nugget skins, but some weird thing my brain does not know. So, all nuggets are dangerous. And I get scared again.”

I totally see this with my son. He will love blueberries for a long time – but then he gets one bad blueberry – an under-ripe overly tart one, or an over-ripe squishy icky one. Then for weeks he has a hard time trusting blueberries again. He prefers processed packaged food to real whole foods, because Cheez-Its taste the exact same and have the exact same texture every time. He can trust them. Bananas are a risky proposition.

If you’re having a hard time understanding this, just think about one of your preferences. Maybe you like Coke but Pepsi is really not the same and you’re disappointed if you have to drink it. Or you really like your coffee with half-and-half and Splenda. And if you’re on a trip and they only have skim milk and sugar, it’s just not the same, and it throws your morning off a little. Now, put yourself in the shoes of an anxious child, who doesn’t have the perspective and flexibility you’ve gained from experience, and perhaps you can understand the upset?

If your child is old enough (maybe 5 or older?) try asking them open-ended questions to learn about what they like, what they don’t like, and what worries them about food. Understanding this can guide you in the next steps to take.

Can you force them to try foods?

I have to be honest that I have never tried to force my child to eat. With my older kids, I could do a little wheedling and nagging, and they’d give it a try. With my youngest, the nagging doesn’t work, and I’ve always had the sense that if I tried to force it, it would be bad.

There are plenty of examples of super picky eaters who will gag or vomit if you try to force them to eat something. Then later on, they’ll gag or vomit if that food is even in the same room with them, even if they’re not being pushed to eat it. And their food repertoire becomes even more restricted.

I don’t know if that would be the case with my son. I do think he would have big meltdowns, and I do think it would damage the trust he has in me, and I think it might make eating new foods even more stressful for him.

Encouraging Them to Try to Broaden their Eating

Be sure to check out the tips in my picky eaters post, plus:

Steps to Eating

When introducing a new food, tips will often say “offer just a few bites… expect your child to have to try something 7 or more times before they accept it.” For a super picky eater, we need to take even smaller baby steps. This Steps to Eating chart is helpful in describing those steps… can the child tolerate being in the same room as the food? Can that food be at the same table? On their plate, but not touching any of their other food? Are they willing to try smelling the food? Touching it with one finger? Licking it? Each step closer to eating it is progress!

Food Chaining

Another helpful tool is food chaining. Think of a food your child likes. Level 1 is to give them very similar foods – same taste and texture – for example, with my son, we’ve introduced Tyson chicken nuggets (yes, not the most healthy option, but very similar to McNuggets, but something we can have in the freezer at home). Level 2 is to vary the taste, but keep the texture – maybe dip the nugget in sauce? Level 3 is to maintain the taste but change the texture – so chicken strips made with whole chicken breast rather than the ground / reconstituted chicken in a nugget. Level 4 is to vary the taste and texture – breaded fish patty?

Slow and Steady Changes – Texture and Color

Some young children are very picky about texture. At some food clinics, they will puree all the child’s food, and they gradually move toward chunky purees, then eventually solid foods. Some kids will eat only crunchy foods – so parents try lots of the veggie chips, kale chips and so on. Eventually hopefully moving to carrots and apples for crunch.

Some children are picky about color. If a child preferred white food, they could start with 90% mashed potatoes and 10% sweet potatoes, and gradually increase the orange.

Many picky eaters like very bland foods (white noodles, white bread). But a few are sensory seekers and want very intense flavors – you may need to spice everything up.

Record Progress

Take notes on what they tried, and whether they liked it, and how much they tried. Comment on how much you appreciate their flexibility and willingness to try.

Have them rank things on a scale from 1 to 10. If it’s 5 or higher, encourage them to try it again a few times in the next week. If it’s lower than 5, don’t offer it again for quite a while till you’ve had successes with other foods. A reward system might increase their motivation.

Limit Sensory Input at Mealtimes

If a child is easily over-stimulated, eating is a LOT of sensory input. Try eating in a quiet, calm place without a lot of other stimuli. Don’t talk too much about the food – just put it there and allow them to explore it.

Familiar Food in Unfamiliar Environments

I only ask my child to try new things when he’s having a good day – we’re relaxed, hanging out at home, all is going well. But when we’re in a challenging situation, I make food as easy as I can. To understand why, read this quote from the blog post cited above:

“Sometimes people even want me to change rooms to eat… School does that. You want me to move to some place, sit down, and eat what you have made… No one told me I would smell different things, hear different voices and touch different stuff, and now you even want me to taste things? It is too much, so I just freeze.”

When my son is having challenges at school, I want to make sure his lunchbox is filled with all of his familiar favorite comfort foods and that it always meets his expectations. There are always 5 items – there’s always a yogurt tube, always cheesy crackers, always two fruits and always either a peanut butter sandwich or apple slices with peanut butter. And if we’ve run out of any of those things, I tell him when I pack his lunch, and I explain the substitution I’ve made. I want to be sure that lunch at school is something that re-grounds him, not upsets him. We can try for more food variety in all the other meals in his week. And when we go on vacations or to family camp, we pack protein drinks, protein bars, and peanut butter crackers. I know we can always find fruits and grains he will eat, but these are the ways I ensure he gets protein.

When should you seek help?

If your child is a super picky eater, you should already be talking to their doctor about it for advice and to monitor their weight gain and development.

Also, watch for physical signs of food intolerances or allergies. Many “picky eaters” are later found to have food sensitivities. So, if you see rashes or eczema, or your child has frequent diarrhea or constipation, or frequently complains of a sore tummy, talk with your doctor to see whether any kind of allergy testing or food elimination would be warranted.

If a child often gags or chokes or has problems swallowing, they might benefit from a “swallow study” or work with an OT or speech-language pathologist to build their eating skills and muscle coordination.

But here are some red flags that they may need additional support:

  • It’s getting worse – their list of accepted foods is getting smaller and smaller. Maybe it used to be 20 foods, and now it’s 10.
  • You believe your child would starve or be hospitalized before they’d eat foods they don’t like.
  • They will only eat if someone else feeds them. (In a child who should be old enough to feed themselves)
  • If their pickiness is limiting their life – for example, they can’t go on play-dates or sleepovers or eat out at a restaurant due to food limitations.

If this is the case, talk to your child’s doctors about your next steps.

More ideas

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Words Matter

We recently did an exercise in a parenting class that I teach, where I talked with parents about discipline and ways to speak with our kids to increase the chance that they will do what they are supposed to do. How you talk to your kids and what you say effect the chances that they’ll listen.

Here are some ineffective communications techniques and ways to turn them around to make them more effective:

Vague Commands

What you may be saying: Be good. Behave better. Be nice. You better behave well at the restaurant.

Why this may not be working for you: Saying “be good” implies they are bad. And, these vague commands require them to guess what it is that you want them to do. (What does “be good” look like?)

Alternative approaches that may be more effective: Set clear expectations in advance about what good behavior is in that context. “At lunch, you’ll need to sit in your chair or my lap and use a quiet voice.” If issues arise, give very clear, concrete instructions for what they should do. “Please sit on your chair now or you can sit in my lap.”

Try re-writing these sentences:  “Be good at the movie.” “Be nice to her.”

Broken Record

What you may be saying: We’re late, let’s go. Come on, we’re late. Can you just put your shoes on? We’re late, we need to go. Come on!

Why this may not be working for you: If you feel like you’re saying the same thing over and over, you should ask yourself: can they hear you? Do they understand what you want them to do? Do they have the skill to do that? What’s stopping them from doing it?

Alternative approaches that may be more effective: Connect to Correct. Make sure you have their attention first, then tell them what the behavior issue is. Go near them, get down to their level, establish eye contact, and use a calm voice. Once you have their attention, then offer clear guidance – say it once – loud and clear!

Try re-writing this sentence: “Stop jumping on the couch. Cut it out. No jumping. You know you’re not supposed to jump on the couch. Stop it.”

Only telling them what NOT to do

What you may be doing: Don’t throw that / spill that / hit the dog / slam the door

Why this may not be working: If you just say what not to do, they have to first stop their impulse, then figure out what they can do instead. Both are hard for young kids to do!

Alternative approaches: Tell them what to do: “Carefully hand that to me. Move your milk so it doesn’t spill. Pet the dog softly. Close the door gently.”

Try re-writing: “Don’t throw your Legos.”  “I hate it when you slam the door.”

Dismissing their Feelings

What you may be doing: I don’t care if you’re mad – we don’t break things…. You know we need to leave the park now – crying won’t change that… I know you’re excited, but you need to sit down.

Why this may not be working: Dismisses their feelings as unimportant. Until the emotion is acknowledged, it may be hard to move past it. Saying “I know you have this feeling, BUT…” doesn’t count as validating, because that “but” implies you don’t care about their feelings.

Alternative approaches: Validate emotions first, then address the behavior or re-state limits. “I know you’re mad. It’s not OK to break things.” “I can see that makes you sad. I get that – I’m sad too. And… it’s still time to leave the park.” “I know you’re excited and it’s hard to stay still. It’s important to sit down so other people can see.”

Try re-writing: “Don’t cry. You know I won’t give you more candy.” “I know you’re mad that he took your toy, but you can’t hit him.”

Over-using If / Then Threats

What you may be doing: If you don’t brush your teeth right now, then no bedtime story.

Why this may not be working: Could imply you expect they’ll do the bad thing. (Kids are good at living up to expectations!) Could imply you’re looking forward to punishing.

Alternative approaches: When / then – When you do [this good thing], then we get to do [something mutually enjoyable] together. “When you’re done brushing your teeth, we get to read a bedtime story. If you’re fast enough we get to read two!”

Try re-writing: “If you don’t help me clean, then you don’t get to go to the park.”

Note: there is a place for using if/then threats as consequences, but start with when/then.

Asking Questions when you mean to give Commands

What you may do: Would you please stop yelling? Are you ready to sit in your car seat?

Why this may not be working: If you ask it as a question, that implies they can say no, or opt out of what you’re asking them to do.

Alternative approaches: If you’re really offering a choice, make sure they know they can choose either option. If you don’t mean to offer a choice, then give a command not a question. “Use a quiet voice.” “You need to sit in your car seat now.”

Try re-writing: “Do you want to put on your boots now?”

Do Try This At Home

Sometime in the next week, test this out! When you find an opportunity to change your communication from your normal style to trying out a new communication strategy from above, then seize the moment and test this out.

Then reflect on these questions

  • What happened as a result of using this new communication strategy?
  • What did you notice about how it felt?
  • What happened with your child?
  • How might this support a relationship with your child?

Share your experience in the comments!

Here’s a free printable version of this exercise on Effective Communication Techniques to Improve Discipline.

Kids Do Well If They Can

To resolve problem behavior in children, first attempt to figure out why the behavior is happening. A key question to ask yourself is: are they capable of behaving better? Dr. Ross Greene argues that “if your child could do well, he would do well… If your child had the skills to exhibit adaptive behavior, he wouldn’t be exhibiting challenging behavior.”

Let’s contrast this “kids do well if they can” idea with another common philosophy, which Greene calls “kids do well if they wanna.”

Kids Do Well if They Wanna

If a child is not doing well, this model assumes that it’s because they don’t want to do well. So, that implies that the parent/teacher’s primary job is to make him want to do well. Typically that would lead to rewarding the behaviors you like, or punishing the behaviors you don’t like. If you’re right and he IS capable of doing it, then this may work. If he’s not capable of doing well, all the rewards and punishment won’t change that. The problem behavior might not improve or might even get worse.

Under this model, you first ramp up the punishment, and if it still doesn’t work, you may decide his behavior is fully intentional… maybe he’s trying to manipulate you or get attention or test limits or maybe he’s just lazy and unmotivated. If you start assuming this kid is a bad kid who intentionally misbehaves, his behavior will not improve.

Kids Do Well If They Can

What happens if we instead assume that kids want to do well, but sometimes they aren’t yet able to? Here, the parent/teacher’s primary job is to figure out what’s getting in his way and how to help him get past it.

Instead of jumping ahead to fix the behavior, first figure out what the core issue is. What’s hard for them? Think about the environments / situations where the challenging behavior appears. What are the stressors in that environment and how could you reduce them? What skills are they lacking that would help them to be successful there? How can you teach those crucial skills? What unmet needs in the child might be causing this behavior? Can you address those?

Here’s a nice infographic (source: https://self-reg.ca/infographics/ ) that summarizes these models.

reframe-behaviour-growth-mindset-edition

Learn a lot more about this idea, and about Greene’s model at https://www.livesinthebalance.org/walking-tour-parents which includes several helpful videos of Dr. Greene sharing his ideas.

Child-Directed Play

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For a young child, most of their activities are directed by adults: we tell them when they need to eat, sleep, go to the bathroom, listen to stories and so on. Even when they play, sometimes we direct them – telling them how they should play with something, or else we interrogate them – “what color is that car? how many cars are there?”

Just take a moment to imagine what that would be like for you to be told what to do all day long. And then when you finally settle in to some “me time”, someone comes along and asks you question after question. It would drain your energy tanks, right? You might get cranky at that person. You might start to tune out their questions, or resist their suggestions.

Do you have a child who you feel is tuning you out – not listening to you? Do you have a child who is resisting doing what you tell them to do?

Try listening to them. Try letting them tell you what to do for a little while each day. I don’t mean put them in charge of discipline for you! What I mean is spend a little time each day that’s all about play, and even better, is all about your child deciding what to play, and you following along. Let them take the lead for a while and have fun discovering where they’ll lead you.

The Incredible Years program talks about “building up your child’s bank account” of energy, connection, and good will towards you as the parent. If they have a full bank, they’re much more willing to listen to you and do what you ask than if they’re feeling drained.

Many things fill their bank, including: praise, support, love, attention, and special time playing with them one-on-one.

To build a stronger, more positive relationship with your child, try dedicating at least ten minutes a day to a focused session of child-directed play. Here are some tips:

  • Call it “special time” or some other words that cue them that this is the time when they get to decide what happens.
  • Let them choose the activity.
  • Follow their lead. Model cooperation by doing what your child asks you to do.
  • Don’t focus on “the right way” to play, and don’t feel like this needs to be a time when you’re teaching them. This is just about building connections.
  • Praise their initiative and encourage their creativity.
  • Laugh and have fun.
  • Don’t quiz them on academic questions that have a right answer – these questions drain the bank. Either they don’t know the answer, which is stressful, or they (and you) already know the answer, so nothing new is learned by asking the question. Instead, try:
    • Silent observation.
    • Narration – talk about what you see them doing. “You picked up the red car and ran it down the ramp. Now you have the blue car.” Try to use descriptive comments much more often than questions.
    • Notice what they’re interested in and talk about that. That way, they’re setting the agenda, not you.
    • Open-ended questions – questions that you don’t already know the answer to. “What are you planning to do next?” “What would happen if…?”
  • Give just enough help to help them with frustration, but don’t take over the play, and don’t leap in to solve every problem for them.

You can use the Attention Principle while you play. Pay special attention to anything that you like about what they’re doing: “I appreciate that you shared that with me”, “you kept trying even though you were frustrated, and look, you did it!” If they do something annoying or something you don’t want to encourage, just ignore it. (Unless of course it is unsafe or breaks a family rule – you do still need to set reasonable limits.)

You’re modeling for your child what cooperative play looks like, and helping them develop social-emotional skills that will help them also play well with others.

Learn more tips for child-directed play using Greenspan’s Floortime method. https://gooddayswithkids.com/2019/01/15/floortime/

For parent educators and other professionals, here’s a handout on this topic you can share with parents: Child Directed Play handout.

Booster Seats for Travel

On a recent field trip day at my son’s school, I was watching kindergarten to second graders try to lug around their booster seats and car seats, and watching volunteer parents try to figure out how to strap the car seats into their cars. (I personally just volunteered to drive, because it was easier than unfastening and refastening my son’s car seat!) Then, one child came up holding this little thing the size of a clutch purse, telling me it was her car seat. (Image from Amazon)

I talked with the mother a little, but was having a hard time seeing how this could possibly be safe – so I did my research. (Meaning – I contacted a friend who is a CPST carseat technician and asked her! She gave me some great articles to read.)

The seat was a mifold Grab-and-Go Car Booster Seat. It’s advertised as being

  • More than 10x smaller than a regular booster seat and just as safe
  • The most advanced, compact, and portable booster seat ever invented designed for kids aged 4 and up, 40 to 100 lbs, and 40 to 57 inches tall

It’s available for around $40.

At first glance I didn’t understand how it worked… I thought the purpose of a booster seat was to get the child up high enough that the shoulder belt goes across their chest, not across their neck. This seat is 3/4 of an inch thick, so how does it work?

Instead of thinking of the mifold as a booster seat, think of it as a belt-positioner. Instead of lifting the child up, it pulls the seatbelt down. The belt guides on the seat ensure that the lap belt goes low across the child’s hips (not their belly – on top of all their internal organs, and not on the thighs where they could slip forward in case of an accident.) The strap pulls the shoulder belt down lower, so it will go across the child’s shoulder and chest, not their neck.

To transport, it folds up very small, with the strap wrapped around it. To install it, you unfold it, press a button to open the seat belt guides up wider (there are three possible widths to adjust to your child’s size). Use the setting that is closest to your child’s thighs without touching their thighs. Once child is seated on the mifold, you take the lap belt through the belt guides on the seat, then use the strap to clip the shoulder belt down at the right height. (Watch the videos on Amazon or in the reviews.)

Check for proper belt fit: the lap belt must fit snugly, low across the hip bones, just touching the top of the things. The shoulder belt should be across the center of the shoulder.

It appears that the mifold works very well with many children in many vehicles. However, in some vehicles, it just can’t position the belts correctly, which means it would not be safe in a crash.

Here are detailed reviews of the mifold, from Car Seat Blog and Car Seats for the Littles. Here is a video review. Here’s another video review. (Note: the video reviewers do not appear to be car seat experts.) Here are the ease of use ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Safety note: the IIHS, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, will not rate the mifold because, instead of raising the child up, “the device pulls the belt down to the child. There aren’t any data about how this new type of device works with real kids in real crashes. For these reasons, the Mifold isn’t comparable to the boosters that IIHS evaluates and isn’t included in the ratings.”

The consensus of the reviews cited above, and user reviews on Amazon:

Pros: Incredibly portable! Great for travel, taxis, and so on. Affordable. Older children are not embarrassed to use it, as they may be with another booster when their friends have outgrown theirs.

Cons: Won’t fit all kids in all cars. Can slip around on seat or fold up a bit, which can make it hard to get into. Younger children won’t likely be able to buckle and unbuckle themselves as this is a bit tricky.

My personal choice, as a mom – not as an expert in the field – is that the next time I go on a solo trip with my son, I’ll get a mifold. As a handicapped mom (I have one leg), being able to tuck his carseat into a suitcase instead of having to schlep a separate seat around airports is a huge advantage to me. But for this week’s trip when my husband will be with me, we’ll just stick to our traditional backless booster. We’ve got two 2-hour drives and two 4-hr drives so want to ensure he’s comfortable and up high enough to see out the window of our unknown rental vehicle.

For our everyday use, my son is still in a 5 point harness seat in my car and my husband’s car, or in a traditional booster for the once a week ride with grandpa or school field trips where I won’t be around to help ensure it fits properly in another parent’s car.  I want him to be as safe as possible, so I always keep him at each level of car seat as long as I can. (My son is 8, but he’s just 50 inches and 52 pounds, so he’s got a long ways to go before he maxes out the height and weight limits on seats.)

But if a highly portable carseat is a necessity for you, this may be a good option.

The mifiold is available at Amazon, Target and elsewhere.

Alternatives:

Some alternative small portable booster seats to consider for travel, carpooling, field trips, after school playdates, visits with grandparents, taxi or bus rides:

BubbleBum Inflatable Backless Booster Car Seat, Black. Here’s a review of the BubbleBum. This is an inflatable booster seat! So, it weighs one pound and squashes up small in the suitcase. $27

Ride Safer Delight Travel Vest, Small Yellow – Includes Tether and Neck Pillow cost around $150. This is a vest that you buckle child into, then buckle it into the car. Comes with a bag so kids can carry their own seat easily. Helpful when there’s not enough space in the back seat to fit three car seats in a row. Putting one child in this travel vest can solve that problem.

Or, if you just want a fairly small and portable traditional booster seat:  Graco TurboBooster TakeAlong Backless Booster. Here’s the carseatblog’s review of the TurboBooster. $33.

Note: I am NOT a Child Passenger Safety Technician. I am not an expert in this field, so please do your own research with reputable experts to make the safety decisions that are best for your child.