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Real Food for the Resistant Kid


March 16, 2017


Transitioning to a real food diet or making any diet changes is typically a whole family affair. A common obstacle for many is not a lack of their own motivation, but navigating the family through this journey as well. Often, getting the littlest family members to transition is the hardest and I receive many questions about how to get picky kids to open up to this new diet.

So let’s weed through some, let’s call it, unconventional reasons why kids may be expressing some adamant opposition to foods. We’ll tackle topics including outside pressure, innate intelligence of kids, and gut bacteria and their roles in pickiness. At the very end, I’ll list my top tips for converting resistant eaters with more practical suggestions.

Peaceful Mealtimes

This can be a heavy topic because instead of taking a look at the child, we are having to take a look at the environment and ourselves – to be specific – our behaviors at mealtime. Mealtimes should be considered a sacred ritual. Studies show that kids that are raised in households with family mealtimes are more likely to be in a healthy weight range, make better food choices, less likely to develop eating disorders, and also experience fewer psychosocial and behavioral problems.1 Non-rushed, non-stressed family mealtimes allows for conversations about our day and promotes connection with our kids.

family meal

Kids have a natural knack for sensing any tension or stress. Mealtimes should also be free from pressure.  This pressure can come in many forms, and while it may be unintentional, can often be the root cause of pickiness. Many times it may not even be what we say as a parent, but how the child interprets it.

In one study, children pressured to eat soup not only ate less, but they also made 157 negative comments while eating compared to 30 negative comments in the no-pressure group.2 So could our words and body language be triggering picky eating? It appears so. It’s believe that the pickier the kid, the more sensitive they are to pressure.

A few examples of what pressure may look like:
> Rushing a slow eater to finish their meal. Are family members getting antsy or getting up while a younger one is still eating?
> Pushing an underweight child to eat more.
> Subtle things we say can be interpreted as pressure, including, “just try it, I worked hard on this meal,” “finish your soup,” or “see, even Dad is eating it.”
> Even the simple act of labeling a child as “picky” may cause feelings of insecurity in the child.

What’s interesting is that when kids feel that they aren’t being watched, they will actually eat better! The main thing to remember with a resistant eater is that much of their issues with food are due to anxiety, which can trigger the fight or flight response, decreasing appetite. So let’s take that pressure off the table!

Tapping into Instinct

Around 18 months of age, food rejection typically rears its ugly head. Scientists refer to this as “food neophobia,” and as irritating as it can be for us parents, it actually serves a purpose from an evolutionary perspective. Peaking around ages 2 to 6, dependence lessens and resistance to new foods protects the child from eating substances that might be poisonous. Because there are so many vegetables, these are often the most rejected. This is why I am not a huge fan of the concept of hiding vegetables. Kids need to see, feel, and taste the food in order to accept and build confidence surrounding new vegetables. It can also injure the trust between the child and parent.

trying veggies

Resistance to vegetables may also be related to their compromised ability to digest them as well. Dr. Thomas Cowan states that, “children younger than five years generally do not do well with vegetables. I tell all my parents not to worry about their children not liking vegetables, as this is normal in this stage of life. In fact, because they are slow in this enzymatic conversion, perhaps it is best left to the cow to do this conversion and for the child to eat butter and cream. This is actually probably more as nature intended it anyway.”3 So while we absolutely need to continue offering vegetables, maybe we don’t need to be stressed so much over their intake. Vegetables should still be offered on each and every plate, regardless of how many times they’ve been rejected, to help build familiarity. Once the child passes through this natural stage, they will be more likely to accept them.

While keeping this all in mind, we also must remember that babies, toddlers, and young children, are very instinctual. They are able to listen to the communication they receive from their bodies. We often lose this ability, or at least ignore this communication from our own bodies, as adults. A study showed that a kid who are provided with a smorgasbord {of reasonable variety and balance of natural and unrefined foods} without prompting, will choose the foods that individual child needs the most. For instance, during the study one small child with rickets chose to drink cod liver oil irregularly at varying amount until he was healed!4 I don’t know many that could drink cod liver straight— obviously this child instinctively “knew best” what he should eat!

Our role as a parent is to provide healthy options. The job of the child is to either accept or reject what we offered. Take away the pressure and allow them to tap into their innate ability to determine what their body needs at that given moment. Maybe they aren’t needing the nutrients from broccoli at this exact moment, but do need more of the protein and omega-3 found in that grassfed beef on their plate. However, there are exceptions to this and we may have internal factors that augment our natural instincts, which we will discuss in a moment.

Gut bacteria & pickiness

However, sometimes we are doing everything “right” and we are still battling with pickiness. I think we all know that child that only eats bread, pasta, and chicken nuggets (or maybe growing up, we were that child – cough, me, cough). This pickiness may actually be triggered by something deeper, on the gut level. Let’s take a look.

gut bacteria

Sugar feeds yeast and pathogenic bacteria. When there is an overgrowth of this pathogenic bacteria, digestion suffers, and we lose the ability to digest food adequately. Instead of providing the nourishment we need, the improperly digested food will in turn go through a processed called alcoholic fermentation.

As Dr. Campbell-McBride puts it, “In this biochemical process Candida and other yeast convert dietary glucose into alcohol (ethanol) and its by-product acetaldehyde. This phenomenon was first described in adults, who appeared to be drunk without consuming any alcohol. Later on it was found that these adults had an overgrowth of yeast in their gut, which produced alcohol and made them permanently ‘drunk.’ These people were particularly ‘drunk’ after a carbohydrate meal, because carbohydrates are consumed by Candida with the production of alcohol.”5

For instance, a child with an overgrowth of the yeast Candida will experience a surge of “feel good” chemicals after consuming bread. On top of the yeast craving sugar as its own source of food (causing cravings), kids may make their own connection between the food and the “feel good” state they’re experiencing and will begin to ask for that food more regularly.

What’s a parent to do?

When approaching pickiness, it’s important to consider the child, their personality type, family dynamics, and their gut microbes. It can be overwhelming and feel isolating at times. Just know that you are not alone! If you would like guided support down this journey, I offer nutrition therapy consults for women, families, and kids alike. In my practice, I like to take a comprehensive approach, using micronutrient testing, food sensitivity testing, or stool testing as necessary to determine underlying imbalances and nutritional deficiencies to tailor a protocol unique to that individual – which can be especially critical for addressing children’s health. Click here if you’d like to set up a complimentary 30-minute meet-and-greet session.

Before we part ways, I’ll leave you with a few other practical suggestions for converting resistant kids.

kids cooking
  • Timing of meals/snacks. Sometimes kids don’t eat much at mealtimes because they simply are not hungry. Avoid snacking before a meal.

  • Due to the food neophobia, keep meals simple. Casseroles and other mixed dishes can be overwhelming for young kids at the peak of their resistance. If they can’t recognize it, intuition may tell them to steer away.

  • Kids get easily overwhelmed with large portions and can cause them to reject it altogether. Start with small helpings of each of items of food and allow them the option for second helpings.

  • Offering a new food with familiar foods can help increase the likelihood of acceptance.

  • Avoid using food as reward/punishments will make mealtime efforts easier. Also, using food as rewards can set the stage for emotional eating later.

  • Get them involved. Have kids help with meal planning, grocery shopping, gardening.

  • Help them develop a love for the kitchen.. even if you don’t yourself. Let kids help with age-appropriate cooking tasks. Expect it to take longer than usual and will be a bit more messy. But we are creating memories that last a lifetime. When I’m in a hurry, I try to remind myself of what’s more important – a clean kitchen or that my child was able to build confidence, practice his motor skills, and express his independence by pouring the cacao powder into the bowl (and all over himself).

  • At snacks, give the child options. Give them 2-3 healthy options so that they feel that they have options and a bit of control over their intake. Example, “would you rather yogurt or an apple for snack?”

  • Many kids enjoy dips. Make healthy dips for them to dunk their veggies or meat.

  • Use toothpicks for kids to pick up their foods with.

  • Start young. It’s never too late to start introducing kids to diverse flavors.

  • Be a role model. Simply seeing your enjoyment of these wholesome, nourishing foods can be contagious!

5. Campbell-McBride, N. (2010). Gut and psychology syndrome: natural treatment for autism, dyspraxia, A.D.D., dyslexia, A.D.H.D., depression, schizophrenia. United Kingdom: Medinform Publishing.

  1. Shari says:

    This is so eye-opening! I like what you wrote about not hiding vegetables in food, and that they are difficult to digest for little ones. Good to know.

  2. […] are many reasons behind picky eating—fear of new food isn’t the only one. Newfound independence, stubbornness, and even sensitivity […]

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