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Picky eating ‘can be repaired’: expert

Picky eating in adolescents "can be repaired" according to world-renowned registered dietician nutritionist.
Picky eating in adolescents "can be repaired" according to world-renowned registered dietician nutritionist. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)

My sister declared at 12 years old that she was becoming a vegetarian. She had recently joined a group at school called Listen to the Animals. She drew the conclusion that if animals could speak, they would probably say something along the lines of “Please. Don’t. Eat. Me.”

My mother was perplexed by my sister’s “alternative” lifestyle. In the early ’90s, the grocery store wasn’t exactly overflowing with options. It would take years for kale, quinoa and pulses to make their way into our collective, culinary lexicon. But my mom got to work, making sure my sister had variety in her diet.

That was the extent of special preferences in our house, but I could write a book about the number of parents I meet dealing with some type of finicky eater or another.

I’ve heard about:

  • An 11-year-old boy who will eat pepperoni sticks, but only the smooth ones. If a fresh stick has a wrinkled surface, it’s inedible.
  • A teenage girl who survives off of potatoes, bread and cheese.
  • A nine-year-old who has a love-hate relationship with steak. One week he can’t get enough. The next week, it’s poison.
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Ellyn Satter, a world-renowned family therapist and registered dietitian nutritionist, says if you have an adolescent picky eater, all hope isn’t lost.

“It can be repaired at that point,” she said.

Satter has a number of tips to offer to make meal-time more amicable.

Divide responsibility

“The solution is the same as the prevention,” Satter said. The dietitian recommends using the Division of Responsibility in Feeding.

Parents determine what, when and where the child will eat. The child decides if they eat and how much.

“The bottom line is tranquil, enjoyable, pleasant family meals where the child can join in and make a contribution to the enjoyability of the family meal,” Satter said. “As you know, if there’s a picky kid at the table, many times it’s just chaos.”

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Be considerate without catering

Satter suggests giving your child a plate with a variety of options, including something they are familiar with and will typically eat. That doesn’t mean presenting their favourite food every single meal, but it does mean including something that typically makes it down the pipe.

“It’s positioning the child so he can come to the family meal happy, he can consider what’s there, he can say ‘yes, please’ to some items and ‘no, thank you’ to others. In other words, he can behave decently. He can not freak out when there’s food there that is not necessarily to his liking.”

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Satter says if children learn to feel comfortable around a variety of food, they are positioned to “ever-so-gradually” test out unfamiliar food and learn to enjoy it.

Have a chat

Satter recommends communicating your expectations. Tell your child they are expected to show up to the table hungry and on time, to look food over and eat what they’re interested in.

“They’re going to test by eating very little of anything at all and getting right up after the meal and wanting to raid the refrigerator. The parent is going to have to say, ‘That’s it until bed time.'”

The dietitian says it could take two or three weeks before a child’s attitude changes and three or four months before they start to “ever-so-cautiously experiment with unfamiliar foods.”

I ask Satter about the success rate of her method. How many children have become more adventurous eaters as a result? She says I’m missing the point. Her goal isn’t to broaden palates, it’s to help kids enjoy food, relax at mealtime and eat in public without making a fuss. She says when you throw in the agenda or goal, the pressure – which complicates a child’s relationship with food – is back.

“Children do tend to become more adventurous eaters but it takes years… and parents simply can’t pin their hopes on this,” Satter said. “All they can do is continue to put together meals with food that they enjoy… and not making a fuss about what anyone eats or does not eat.”

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