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Katja Rowell, M.D. Headshot

Are You Really Offering Different Foods to Your Picky Eater?

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"Do you want noodles? Do you want rice? Cucumbers?"

The mom in a picky eater video I stumbled upon online was standing at the fridge, throwing out options for dinner. Her son's predictable answer to each choice was, "No."

Most feeding and picky eating resources instruct parents to repeatedly "offer" a variety of foods. I too recommend that parents serve the foods they want their children to learn to enjoy over and over. The mom in the video would probably say she was doing just that -- offering choices.

Clients tell me they offer a variety of foods "all the time" and are frustrated by constant rejections. Many parents don't understand and are grateful to learn what a better "offer" looks like. There are ways to offer foods that increase the chances of your child branching out and ways that invite almost immediate and certain refusal, like the mom at the fridge experienced. There are even ways to offer that pressure and invite power struggles and anxiety, the enemies to supporting competent eating.

When "offer" isn't really "offering" and why it matters

Studies are ongoing into the best ways to introduce variety to children, with experts agreeing that a key problem is that many parents give up too soon. Other parents simply don't offer foods at all, or after an initial rejection, thinking the child doesn't or won't like them.

A great example of this trap came when I worked with the parents of three boys, with the 4-year-old middle son being the most selective. Mom was worried about protein, and while brainstorming different options, I wondered about shrimp. Mom answered, "Oh no, they don't like shrimp."

Dad looked at Mom, then at me. "We've lived in this house for five years, and we haven't made shrimp here. I don't think our youngest two have ever seen shrimp."

Or consider the mom whose son eats less than 10 foods. She serves him his dinner at the kitchen island with two or three of his accepted foods. There are no other choices set out for him. She sometimes asks him while preparing his meal if he wants something else, but the offer is always turned down. Tired from years of pressuring and arguing, Mom and Dad simply serve him his foods and eat their own meals separately.

What missed opportunities!

What does an honest, no-pressure, make it easy, low-obstacle offer look like?

• Takes place in a pleasant family meal where the parent/s are enjoying the foods on offer (without comments, bribes or praise).

• Foods are served family-style, meaning not pre-plated. (This is the No. 1 tip my clients say helps with picky eating and power struggles.) As the author of Mealtime Hostage , a blog about selective eating, wrote:

Simply changing the way food is served significantly reduced the amount of anxiety at the table. Once he was given the option to choose what he wanted on his plate and permission to do with it whatever he wanted, family meals immediately took a turn for the better.

• There is room on the plate, or an extra plate or bowl where the child can put the food.

• There is a paper napkin nearby so the child can spit out the food. Many children are more likely to put food into their mouths if they know they can get rid of it other than swallowing or vomiting.

• The food is within reach but not placed or pushed onto the child. (I worked with a client where the toddler suddenly "refused" milk. Instead of handing or putting the cup up to the child's mouth, I asked the mom to put the cup on the high-chair tray, and after about 30 seconds of chatting about other things, the child grabbed the cup and started drinking.)

• Avoid thinking of foods in terms of what they "like" or "don't like." Kids are fickle, and what they reject one day, or month, they will enjoy again for no reason -- but they have to have access for that to happen.

• The child needs time to throw out the first rejection, and be met with no attempts from the parent to convince or coerce. The initial reaction for most young children is "no." Hang in there.

• There must be no pressure to try, or kiss, play with, lick or interact with the food in any way. If your child resists these tactics, they aren't helping.

Then comes the hard part: the waiting. It can take months and even years of these no-pressure offerings for some of the more selective children to learn to eat new foods.

I had a great reminder to offer well in my own kitchen recently. My daughter M is not a fan of eggs right now. It's one of those foods she eats for a while, and then passes over for months. I made scrambled eggs the other morning "for" my husband and me, putting out cereal, strawberries, milk and yogurt to choose from. I caught myself before putting the eggs directly onto my husband's and my toast, remembering to put the eggs on a plate in the middle of the table, with a plate for M in case she wanted some.

We settled in, I helped myself to some eggs, M started with cereal. I offered her eggs, she said, "No thank you," and we moved on. We're chatting away, and at some point I say (because it was true, not to try to make her eat eggs), "These eggs are really hitting the spot." A few minutes later, M serves herself a small portion of eggs, sprinkles with salt and eats. She then goes back to her fruit and cereal.

What do you think? Are you really offering a variety of foods?