Getting a picky eater to consume enough nutrients can be difficult in the best of times, but during a pandemic, stress might cause a picky kid to become even pickier. In an interview, Dr. Jennifer Anderson, the dietician and mom behind Kids Eat In Color, said that one of the best ways to encourage a picky eater to finish their veggies is to let kids listen to their own bodies. And when things are as upside down as they are now, it’s okay to let some things slide every now and then.
“I have heard many parents report their kids have become more picky during the pandemic. This makes sense,” Anderson said. “As stress and anxiety increase, it puts our bodies on hyper alert. When our bodies are on hyper alert, we become more aware of little things that annoy us. Kids may also fixate on small things like the color or texture of foods. Then they want to eat those foods less. I call this the picky eating anxiety cycle. The pandemic has increased stress for many families and picky eating is one things that’s affected.”
Anderson said during the pandemic parents might be having kids eat in front of screens more than they usually would, in order to balance work and childcare. They might also relay on take out food rather than cooking more these days. She says it’s important to recognize that we’ve never been through a pandemic before, and we should all cut ourselves some slack.
Just as parents and adults should listen to their own bodies’ needs, Anderson explains why the best way the handle a picky eater is to actually encourage children to decide for themselves what and how much they want to eat.
“The most common obstacle that parents face is the idea that they know how much their child needs to eat. When their child has a day where they eat a small amount of food or no veggies, parents pressure the child because they are worried,” she explained. “That pressure makes kids want to eat less and it may even enable picky eating behaviors.”
As a matter of fact, Anderson said, what parents might see as picky eating, is often just a child listening to their own body “which may only need a small amount of food some days.” Anderson continued, “When parents step back and allow a child to decide how much to eat, it often enables a child to eat lots of healthy food when they are hungry again.”
Another factor to take into consideration when helping kids develop healthy eating patterns isn’t just the food you’re giving them, but the actual act of feeding.
According to Anderson, “Feeding includes parents choosing when to serve meals and snacks, where to serve them, as well as parents choosing the foods to serve. It also includes allowing kids to choose whether or not to eat the meal and how much to eat.” She explained, “When parents create the environment and allow children to be in charge of their bodies, it opens up doors for kids to learn to eat a variety of foods and the right amount of food for their body.”
During the stressful days of lockdown, kids might be asking for food all the time, so Anderson has a few practical suggestions. “Serve snacks that contain a food with fat and protein,” she said, such as apples and peanut butter, full fat yogurt with fruit, trail mix with seeds or nuts, or cheese and crackers with fruit. “This will help them stay full until the next meal or snack so you’re not feeding them all day every day.”
Anderson’s BetterBites program is designed to teach families with picky eaters how to use these kinds of techniques. “The BetterBites program help families with picky eaters reduce their stress and get their child on the road to trying new foods. It is for mild picky eaters and extreme picky eaters, and helps families completely change their experience of mealtime and feeding their child.”
As a mom herself, Anderson recognizes the additional stress the pandemic has placed on families and says her own family has had to adjust how they “normally do food” as well. “Let’s pat ourselves on the back every new day,” she said.