This is an open letter for you to share with family, friends and educators about your approach to raising your child. Sometimes it is hard to find the clarity and words to express how hard it is. I know you appreciate your family, friends and educators concern as it always comes from a place of caring and love. So, here are some great pointers for opening up a conversation that may feel difficult to have. Emotionally, raising kids is tough. It takes a village! So, let’s all work together to be curious, kind and “on board”.

Hi There,

I’m taking some time out to let you know all the things that I want you to know about my picky eater. And I am sending it to you because you have a big heart and you are interested in my child’s well being. I am so grateful for that. Love and caring is exactly what we need from you.

The thing about picky eating is there is not a one-size-fits-all back story to WHY it is happening. For some kids picky eating comes about because of one or more of the following reasons:

  1. Developmentally normal cautiousness (or food neophobia)
  2. Sensory systems make it harder for them to learn about new foods. And they often enact flight / fright based response coping mechanisms.
  3. Skill deficits make it harder for children to eat some foods (eg. chewing skills still being developed)
  4. Routine changes and exerting a need for control.
  5. Sleep, digestive, nutritional and energy related concerns impacting the control of focus, body regulation and emotions.
  6. Cautious temperament.
  7. Medical concerns and/or painful food memories (eg. reflux, premature/traumatic birth, choking incidents, allergies, chronic constipation, repeated sickness/illness and hospitalisations.)

As you can see, picky eating is not about me waking up one day and wanting to have a child that refuses all the foods on offer! Learning to eat is a complicated set of moving components. Working on understanding what this means for my child means that I am putting my hand up to be on their team. Join me!

Steps we are taking to raise a responsive eater

My family and I are on the same page, and we want to raise our child to learn about foods whilst remaining confident and calm. We don’t want our child to have a relationship with food that is fraught with fear, mistruths or distrust. So, we are asking our support crew, you, to help us out! We are a team and therefore here are some things that we can all do that are endorsed by feeding professionals – known as RESPONSIVE FEEDING (the gold standard in helping children have a self driven and positive relationship with food). This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s definitely going to keep us all on the same page.

Things we can do more of:

Include my child in processes like making food, buying food and discussing the tangible aspects of food away from mealtimes.

Keep food talk to tangible properties only. For example, instead of saying “the kiwi fruit is yummy”, you can say “the kiwi fruit is wet, sweet and green”. If in doubt, you don’t have to talk about food in front of them.

Ask me! Always find out what I’m working on with my child, what I’ve been discovering about their eating and what you can do to support me. When you are curious about this, I feel supported. We feel respected. Your interest and listening to us is really appreciated.

Things we can start doing:

Give them time to learn. And give them the chance to opt-out. For example, spitting out a food is a great learn about it’s taste and is only a few steps away from eating. So, opting out by spitting out a food is a great learn. Respect our child’s learning journey. Also, they may seem keen to do something with you relating to food, and then change their mind. That’s OK – they thought about it and that’s super.

Give them something they will be successful at eating when you are offering them food. You wouldn’t give an 8th grade algebra test to a 1st grade class and expect them to do well? The same goes with eating! Skills, practice and confidence all play apart in their ability to perform. At home we are working on skills and practice. Yet, we need ALL meal occasions to help them feel confident. It takes us more work to build up confidence once it has been torn down.

child learning about food

Things we don’t want happening:

Please be mindful of very health driven agendas. Mealtimes provide children with more than just nutrition. An obsessively health based agenda can promote fear. It can also involve tasks that are not in alignment with our child’s skills or needs. We are across the nutritional needs of our child and are working on that in a way that suits our child’s individual needs.

Please do not label food as “good” or “bad”. “healthy” or “junk”. “sometimes” or “everyday”. Call it what it is – A red tomato, a glass of fresh milk, a square-shaped cheese slice. A generic “label” is not helpful and children will turn it in on themselves. This means that at their young developmental age, they start to believe they are junk or they are bad 🙁 . This destroys their confidence. This breaks my heart. There are many more positive and effective ways to educate children without these terms.

Please don’t step on their toes by taking over their responsibilities at meals. Our child (over 2 years of age) decides how much and whether they are going to eat the food on offer. They own that responsibility. Your job is done once you have offered the food. Or in the case of school, our child has lunch provided by us. We love that your role is to provide them a place to eat and a time to eat it. They will then choose what/whether to eat from what is provided by us.

Please avoid using pressure at mealtimes. This is a big one. And it’s still a work in progress for many of us. Pressure comes in many, many forms including praise, rewards, incentives and even direct eye contact. The best tip I’ve learned to avoid pressure is to really focus on my own plate. Zero food talk is a better tool for us at mealtimes.

We are still learning too…

Sharing my thoughts and emotions about this is not always easy. We are NOT bad parents. In fact, blame may have been holding us back. We only want the best for our child. And believe me, we’ve been trying. Yet, the best thing we’ve realised is that we are not alone. Our child is learning about food, and we are taking this responsive approach to feeding them because we are not sticking the “picky” label on them any more. We know you care for our child and your ongoing support means the world to us.

Yours sincerely,

The parent of a picky eater food learner.

Additional Reading/Resources:

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