A Self-Reg View on Picky Eating

picky eating

When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time sitting at the table after dinner, after everyone else had been excused, staring at a glass of milk I didn’t want to drink. That’s probably when my interest in picky eating started. I now realize that I wasn’t that picky as a kid. But, in my day, there was so much pressure on parents to get kids to drink three glasses a day of “the perfect food” that if you didn’t like milk, you sure felt like a picky eater.

My interest in the topic continued when I had picky eating kids of my own, and during my career as a writer for Today’s Parent. Parenting advice about picky eating hasn’t changed much since my kids were little. And a lot of it still pretty much sucks, in my opinion.

This past June I saw a piece in the Globe and Mail that regurgitated some of the same useless advice that was making the rounds 30 years ago.

  1. Don’t prepare separate meals for picky kids. (It supposedly encourages pickiness)
  2. Parents control which foods are provided and when, kids decide how much and whether to eat.
  3. A picky eater may need up to 15 exposures to new food before a child decides to try it.

Notice how the language is all about control.  No surprise. So much parenting advice, even some of the more positive stuff, is rooted in a control mindset. 

If we frame picky eating from a control perspective we see a behaviour problem. The goal is to change the kid’s behaviour. Right away that puts you in opposition to your child. Even if you approach behaviour change in the nicest way, it’s still about getting your kid to do something that you want them to do and that they don’t want to do. That creates power struggles (which by the way  all picky-eating-advice-givers tell you to avoid), pretty much inevitable. 

Picky eating needs a Self-Reg reframe.

What happens when we reframe picky eating as a stress problem? First, you stop seeing a behaviour problem, and therefore you’re asking different questions. Instead of “how can I get her to…?” you’re asking questions like “What’s the stress? Why is my kid stressed about eating certain foods? How can I reduce the stress?”

That orientation puts you on your kid’s side. How can I help them? Not how can I make them. It’s supportive, not controlling. 

And, without a doubt, stress is a big part of picky eating. The more progressive thinkers have been saying for some time that picky eating is primarily about anxiety and sensory integration challenges. Both are linked to excess stress.

Anxiety (Something horrible will happen if I put this in my mouth)

Anxiety and stress are inextricably mixed together. Anxiety is a major stressor and stress contributes to anxiety. My wife, who was by the way, way pickier as a child than I ever was, can still recall the visceral anxiety she felt about having dinner at friends’ houses. She wanted to go, but she knew she would be pressured – often in the most good-natured way – to eat foods she couldn’t eat. Her great fear was gagging at someone else’s house.

Picky Eating and Sensory Issues

And tied up with the anxiety, for a lot of picky eaters, are sensory issues. And it’s not just aversions to strong, strange tastes and smells, but also textures, what food looks like, and even what it sounds like when it’s being eaten. Lisa Pinhorn, who runs a program for parents of extreme picky eaters out of St. John’s with her sister Laurie, says eating is the only thing we do that truly involves integrating all of our senses at the same time. 

Think about that. How stressful would it be to try new or suspicious-looking foods be for a kid who is very sensitive or who has difficult integrating sensory information? And a significant minority of kids do have these difficulties, especially kids with autism and sensory integration disorders. But sensory problems are on a spectrum. Some young kids without clinical disorders have sensory sensitivities at some point in early childhood. All that sensory stuff gets mixed up with anxiety. Add in the pressure that parents feel to get kids eating a varied and nutritious diet and it’s not hard to see how eating can become a stress storm. And when kids and parents are both in high stress mode its pretty darn hard for kids to learn to like new foods. And it’s also much harder for parents to help them do it.

Self-Reg and Parenting Advice

Another cool thing about Self-Reg is that you can use it to assess the impact of parent advice. So let’s try that here with the advice,  “Don’t be a short order cook, put the food on the plate and let the child decide etc.” With a control mindset you’d be focused on trying to follow an expert’s “rule” and wondering why it wasn’t working (What’s wrong with my kid? What’s wrong with me?). 

With a Self-Reg “think stress first” mindset you can ask yourself, “Is this strategy reducing stress or creating stress?”  Looking back, I can see that the conclusion in my house, was that being flexible about what we served reduced stress. Pesto pasta for Mom and Dad, and pasta with tomato sauce and cheese for the kids. It was no trouble and everybody enjoyed a nutritious meal. That’s a win. Kids need to enjoy eating. And enjoying eating is a great way to recover from stress and build our good energy back up.

Let’s look at the 15 exposures thing. That advice, by the way, is based on a study where the researchers had total control over the kids’ environment and food. Nothing at all like real life or real parenting. That advice should be thrown on the scrap heap. Mind you, there’s a nugget of truth there. Seeing people eat, and enjoy, a variety of foods will help kids expand their food horizons—very, very gradually in some case. But food exposure won’t help if doggedly plopping parsnips on a child’s plate (as you work towards the magic 15 exposures) causes stress! Lots of kids can’t stand even looking at a food they hate.

Stress First

I’m not saying that addressing stress is the only way to look at parenting issues like picky eating. Nor, am I suggesting that it’s possible to eliminate “how can I make them?” thinking from day-to-day parenting.  But the role of stress in kids’ behaviour is so often overlooked. And a “what’s the stress?” approach to picky eating can be helpful.

I want to leave you with one thing Lisa Pinhorn said that really stuck with me:  “When your child is an extreme picky eater, eating is about the hardest thing they do everyday.”

Even when we’re talking about more garden variety picky eating, that statement is pretty powerful. It helps us see, and have more empathy for, the picky eater’s plight. 

If you want to dive deeper into this, especially if you have an extreme picky eater, Lisa and Laurie Pinhorn have developed two great resources, which are listed below. 

Good luck, parents of picky eaters. Although it might take awhile, it does get better.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I still don’t like milk.

John has had three distinct careers that have blended together at times: roots musician, stay-at-home father and freelance writer. A former long-time columnist and feature writer for Today’s Parent, John now specializes in knowledge translation, blogging and writing for non-profit organizations like The MEHRIT Centre, The Psychology Foundation of Canada and Dad Central Ontario.
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