Scaffolding for Your Picky Eater

This is a guest post written by Anna Lutz, MPH, RD, LDN, CEDRD.

Do you have a picky eater? As a parent, this can bring up frustration, worry and even anger at times. Understanding about parenting styles and childhood development can help us have the tools to assist our child in expanding what they eat.

Picky eater

Authoritarian vs. Permission Parenting Styles

We know being authoritarian with feeding, telling a child they have to eat certain foods, doesn’t help children expand their variety, and often backfires. An example of this is telling a child that they “must clean their plate.” The opposite of an authoritarian feeding style, as described by Ellyn Satter, is a permissive one. A permissive feeding style may be short order cooking or allowing a child to eat anytime, anywhere. It’s common, when a parent is concerned about their child’s eating, that they go back and forth between these two approaches. Although it’s a natural reaction to being worried about a child’s eating, engaging in these two feeding styles doesn’t support the child in progressing in their eating. The middle ground is authoritative parenting style. In feeding, this is providing structure for meals and snacks for a child.

Childhood Development Theory

So much of nutrition and feeding advice is not based in the theories and understanding of childhood development. Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development is one of many childhood development theories. The Zone of Proximal Development is defined to be the “distance between the most difficult task a child can do alone and the most difficult task the child can do with help.” Children can learn on the outer edge of their Zone of Proximal Development with “scaffolding” or assistance from teachers, peers or parents.

As parents, it’s important to provide the structure, or “scaffolding,” so that the child can expand their eating skills.

Structure or “Scaffolding” for Your Picky Eater

Here are some examples of how a parent can provide structure or “scaffolding” with food:

scaffolding for picky eaters
  • Establish times of meals and snacks so that the child arrives at meal and snack times hungry, but not starving.

  • Decide what is offered at meals and snacks, and not short order cooking.

  • Offer avenues to try new foods – a familiar sauce or dip for the child to have with a less familiar food.

  • Provide a child an opportunity to explore a food in different ways. This may include smelling it, licking it, kissing it, rubbing it on their lips and allowing them to spit it out, if they choose. If this isn’t accepted meal time behavior, you could experiment at a non-eating time.

  • Decrease anxiety at meal time by allowing a child to serve their own plate and having a familiar food on the table.

  • Serve combination meals, like a taco bowl or salad, “deconstructed” so that the child can try the meal with the ingredients of their choosing.

  • Not always serving the item “made to order.” For example, a child may prefer cheese quesadillas, but one night you may decide to put black beans or some chicken in everyone’s quesadilla. Or making a pizza for the whole family and having the child “pick off” what they choose not to eat.

  • When out to eat, ask a child to pick something unique to that restaurant, rather than defaulting to the kids menu of acceptable foods. For example, picking a Asian dish at a Asian restaurant, rather than mac ‘n cheese.

  • Ask a child to help you prepare an unfamiliar food.

  • Prepare an unfamiliar food in a familiar way. For example, serve breaded fish sticks, as a bridge to eating fish in other ways.

  • Eating well is like any other developmental task. Children will approach it in their own way, and as parents it’s our job to support them in making small steps forward. We can’t make them eat a variety of food, but we can provide them with support and assist them in making progress towards eating competence.

-Anna Lutz, MPH, RD, LDN, CEDRD

Anna Lutz is a mom of 3 and a Registered Dietitian with Lutz, Alexander & Assoc. Nutrition Therapy in Raleigh, NC. She specializes in eating disorders and pediatric/family nutrition. Anna received her Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology from Duke University and Master of Public Health in Nutrition from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a Certified Eating Disorders Registered Dietitian (CEDRD). Anna is a national speaker and delivers workshops and presentations on eating disorders and childhood feeding. She is passionate about helping parents avoid the food battle and raise kids to feel good about food and their bodies. She writes about simple cooking, nutrition and family feeding at Sunny Side Up Nutrition.

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