Picky eating gets more complicated as kids grow older but fail to grow out of their selective habits.
Older kids who have been picky eaters for years likely have come to accept their identity as a “picky eater.” Often they have come to see themselves as the kid who doesn’t eat vegetables, brings their own food to sleepovers, or only eats that particular brand of chicken nuggets.
For kids who have embraced their role as a picky eater, recreating their identity becomes part of the picky eating work.
One of the other challenges of older kids who are picky eaters is that they have been picky eaters for a long time. The longer a child engages in a certain behavior, the harder it is to change it.
How to Help Older Picky Eaters
Despite the challenges, there is still hope for your older picky eater. And there are actually some advantages that come with age that will help your older picky eater learn to like new foods.
Older kids have the benefit of communication skills and increased understanding. You can reason with them and teach them about new foods. Building an intellectual understanding of food and eating can often help as they learn to eat new foods.
With this in mind, try these strategies to help your older picky eater.
10 Strategies for Older Kids Who Haven’t Outgrown Picky Eating
Say goodbye to “picky”
The picky eating process is as much about learning new skills as it is embracing a new identity. Dropping the label “picky eater” makes room for your child to become a better eater.
Make eating daily homework
If your child is picky but at the point where they can tolerate sampling or interacting with new foods, trying new foods needs to be a daily practice. Schedule in daily tasting sessions. Many kids will enjoy keeping a log of their progress. I have some samples available here.
Remember the 10x Rule
When your child is quick to proclaim they dislike a new food remind them that it takes the brain at least 10 times to know if it likes or dislikes a new food. Before 10 times, it’s too new to make that judgement. Your child can keep a log of how often they try a new food (and by “try” I mean chew and swallow!) and you can help them by repeatedly offering the new food in different preparations and forms.
Let them participate
Your child’s buy in is important. At every opportunity, include them in decisions about food - whether it’s menu planning, recipe selection, food prep, or even selecting the serving plate.
Focus on descriptive qualities food
Encourage kids to use their “scientific” brains to describe foods instead of their “judgement” brains. Try to replace negative perceptions (like “gross” and “stinky”) with neutral objective descriptors (like “round” or “smooth”).
Provide coping techniques
Not every food will taste good to your child, so it’s important to share an arsenal of coping techniques that help manage unpleasant responses. I like to give the kids in my program a few options: they can spit it out, place the food on a less sensitive part of the tongue, or follow the bite with a preferred taste.
Make one meal
Put an end to short order cooking - making a special meal for your picky eater. Serve one family meal that includes at least one of your child’s safe foods. Encourage your child to put new foods on his or her plate. Watching the rest of the family eat, the exposure to new foods, and the end of their security blanket (a special meal) all help end picky eating.
Include them whenever possible
Involvement in food prep such as grocery shopping and menu planning offers several benefits. First, it exposes your child to many foods. Second, it increases their buy-in and boosts their confidence. Finally, it helps them know what to expect which can minimize anxiety and give them time to mentally prepare. Even if your child can’t be involved in every decision, small actions like posting a menu will make them feel more included.
Teach them how to cook
You can find a cooking activity for every interest and skill level, so don’t let a severe autism diagnosis or inexperience be a barrier. Some kids will need more support while others will thrive independently. Know that every level of activity (from gathering ingredients to watching to manning the stove on their own) will boost confidence, increase comfort, and provide sensory exposure.
Seek professional help
If your older child eats a limited number of foods, restricts entire food groups, isn’t comfortable trying new foods, is limited in social situations, and/or struggles with flavor or texture identification, I suggest seeking the assistance of a doctor, feeding therapist, or dietitian. I help kids of all ages in my picky eating and nutrition program.
Older picky eaters face different challenges than their younger counterparts, but they also benefit from improved communication skills and understanding. It’s not too late for your older picky eater if you begin making some changes to how you talk about food, interact with food, and even plan and prepare meals.
Your first step is doing away with the term “picky eater”. From there, find areas that you can begin to focus on to help your older child end their picky eating. Start with one change at a time and once your child and your family have adjusted, introduce another.