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Picky eating - pressure doesn't work.

Updated: May 30

Picky eaters tend to be extremely selective about what they eat which causes a lot of frustration and concern for parents.  Mealtimes become a battleground - resulting in power struggles where parents try to get their child to eat more and try new foods. For some families, mealtimes become a time to dread.

Parents often have an expectation about how much their child should be eating. They may be concerned that their child is small for their age. In many cases parents resort to pressure tactics to try and get their child to eat more. Getting professional advice on your child’s eating and nutritional intake can be reassuring and reduce this pressure at mealtimes.

Picky eating

Picky Eating

What does pressure look like?

Pressure can be begging or pleading with your child to eat, or making your child eat more of one food before they can have more of another.

Parents often make comments such as -

·        ‘If you eat the broccoli, you can have a dessert after your dinner.’
·        ‘Just two more bites and then you can get down.’
·        ‘Your sister is eating her broccoli; look how well she eats.’

All parents have used pressure at some stage whether it be with food or getting your child to do their homework. We have all been there and it is very stressful!

You might find that some of these tactics seem to work. Every child is different. But for most picky eaters this is not the case. Research shows us that for many picky eaters, pressure may work in the short term, but not in the long term.

Children pressured to eat tend to:

·  Hyperfocus on what they don’t like about the foods you want them to eat.
·        Start to get anxious at mealtimes which suppresses their appetite.
·        Worsen and prolong food refusal.
·        Become more resistant to trying new foods over time.

For some children, the tendency to eat under pressure can result in them finding it harder to respond to hunger cues, and feelings of fullness. This can lead to overeating when they are older.

For children with sensory sensitivities or chewing problems, pressure really does reinforce food refusal. Take the example of a child with a sensory sensitivity eating a non-preferred food because they want the reward that is being offered. The unpleasant experience of eating the food reinforces the fact that they don’t eat that food because it’s an unpleasant experience; and then it will make it much harder to get the children to try that food in the future. This is one of reason why I don’t use rewards with general treatment strategies and feeding therapy for picky eaters.

Picky eating

For some parents letting go of the pressure can be hard, especially as this is not necessarily a ‘quick fix’. The longer pressure has been used, the longer it can take for the child to try new foods. For some parents this causes more anxiety, and they revert to using pressure again.

For many children picky eating tends to be a phase. I work with families to help them change their approach to mealtimes and offer new foods with no pressure. By implementing these strategies, it is possible to improve picky eating in many cases over time. 

If your child is a picky eater, has a low (or shrinking) number of preferred foods, and/or gets very upset with new foods, then please get in touch.

Contact Paediatric Nutrition


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