As a parent, I’m sure you've searched countless times for information to help your gymnast fuel their body. You are prepared to help them feel their best, so that they can be successful both in and out of the gym. You try your best to provide them with the nutrients they need and offer a wide variety of foods. But, what happens when they refuse?
It can be so frustrating when this happens! You wonder, what am I to do about my child’s picky eating habits?
As a parent, I know you have a lot on your plate, and this added stress around food can be a lot. Maybe you find yourself….
Trying to force your child to eat the food
Yelling, raising your voice, or becoming noticeably upset at your child when they don’t eat the food
Threatening them (like taking away their phone or something else they care about)
Forcing them to stay at the table until they finish the food
Bargaining with them
Giving in and serving the foods they feel comfortable with
If you find yourself doing this you are not alone!
Picky eating is frustrating, upsetting and stressful. It can be hard to stop yourself from resorting to these tactics when trying to get your gymnast to eat different foods.
However, the first step of dealing with picky eaters is realizing that this type of pressure or expectations often make the situation worse for everyone!
Children are actually meant to be hesitant around new foods. This stems back to *cavemen times*, when it was beneficial to hesitate before eating a random berry off a tree. A child’s instinct is to hesitate and question to learn if a food is safe to eat or if it is poisonous. In today’s more modern food environment (where most foods found in the home are safe to eat), this can be extremely frustrating when trying to get your gymnast to eat the foods that you know will give them the energy they need at practice, or will help them recover after a long day of gymnastics….
I like to say, picky eating is a self fulfilling prophecy. The more we tell ourselves things like “oh, they would never eat that”, or say aloud to or around our child that they are picky, the more likely they are to act in that way. It’s almost a green light to never leave their comfort zone, or be worried about disappointing you or not meeting an expectation.
Try replacing the word picky with the word “shy”. A shy child might need more time, information, or experiences before they are comfortable with something new, and as a parent, it is our role to help with this. This is no different around food.
I encourage you to remove all expectations around what or how much you expect your gymnast to eat or not eat. As hard as it may be, we don’t want to offer them a reaction, either positive or negative, that gets in the way of food exploration. Now, this does not mean meals are just a free for all for your child now. As the parent, you will always get to establish and communicate your family’s food boundaries, like when meals and snacks happen, what foods are being served, and when the kitchen is closed. You also get to have discussions with your gymnast about connecting their actions to what they are experiencing, like their energy, endurance, strength, or skills in the gym.
Even for a child, sometimes knowing “why” we want them to do something, like eat a certain food, is helpful. Especially when they understand how something like fueling their body or eating certain types of foods is linked to something they believe is important, like achieving their goal in the gym can make a big difference in their willingness to try something new. So helping your picky eater may start with some education (coming from someone other than you...)
We’ve got to remember that everyone, including children, have food preferences. I want you to think for a second. Is there a food that you do not like? Now, how would you feel if someone forced you to eat that food? Not great I'm guessing…. We cannot expect them to love every food prepared every way. We also cannot always expect young children to have the language to understand this. Everyone is allowed to have their own preferences and to like and dislike certain foods or certain preparations of foods.
But, I also don’t accept “no” or “yuck” as an answer to a food preference question. As a dietitian, I always like to dig a little deeper. What is it about the food that they are not enjoying? Is it a flavor – do they prefer sweet or salty or tangy or spicy – is it a texture – do they prefer crunchy or soft or smooth, is it a smell? Ask questions and have conversations! You may find that your gymnast (for example) doesn’t like cooked carrots because they’re mushy but maybe they'll enjoy that carrot raw.
I also do this exercise with foods that a child does enjoy to help hone in on their preferences. That way, you may be able to offer similar foods or flavors in the future to help expand their palate. If they like crunchy broccoli, maybe they’ll also like crunchy cauliflower. If they like bbq sauce on pulled pork, maybe they’ll also like it on chicken.
If you are looking for some ways to help with your gymnasts' picky eating habits, here are 5 tips that may help you!
1. Involve Them In Meal And Snack Time:
Instead of just placing the food in front of your child, or packing the food into their lunch only for them to not eat it later, have your child get involved with the process! A child that is involved in their their food choices in an age appropriate way is often much more comfortable and interested in the foods they are eating. A few of my favorite ways to get your gymnast involved include
Getting your gymnast involved in meal planning. Even asking them if there is a certain food or recipe they’d like to eat during the week
Giving them a choice in what they eat – it could be as simple as saying something like ”we’re having fruit with breakfast today, would you like grapes or a banana”
Take your child grocery shopping every once in a while. If there is a certain food group they are particular with, ask them to help you pick something out, or choose something that they will try that week
Get your child involved in meal preparation and cooking when possible – even have them help wash vegetables or stir ingredients can help them be more comfortable around a new or restricted food.
2. Structure Their Eating Routine:
It can be helpful for many children to know in ahead of time when meals and snacks are coming, as well as what will be served. Having a fueling schedule and a loose menu can help reduce potential arguments over foods.
3. Be A Good Role Model:
Just like so many other pieces to the fueling puzzle, a lot of it comes back to you and what you and others at your table are or are not eating. You cannot expect your child to eat asparagus if they’ve never seen you eat one. You can’t expect them to enjoy eating fish if all they ever hear you do is make comments about how you don’t like it or you hate the smell of it. While your nutrition goals might not be the same as your gymnast’s, you are their ultimate role model when it comes to food. You and those around your gymnast need to model the behaviors you’d like to see
4. Combine Foods They Like With New Foods
Provide a child with a meal that has at least one safe food they like. It can be overwhelming to a shy eater to just put a plate in front of them filled with foods that they don’t want to eat. If the plate instead is a mixture of foods they are comfortable with and foods they are not as comfortable with, they might be more likely to try the food.
5. Don’t give up!
As frustrating as dealing with a picky eater might be, it is very important to not give up when introducing new foods. Just because they tried the food once or one certain way, doesn’t mean they won’t ever eat it. It can take upwards of 20 or more food exposures for a child to even try something new, let alone enjoy eating it. Keep re-introducing foods. Offer foods to them in different ways, by preparing it in differently or flavoring it differently. Even just exposing them to the food - like helping you wash or prepare it, seeing it on the table, seeing other people eat it, asking them to “pass the food” - can help break down barriers and get them closer to trying it.
While these tips can be helpful for many picky eaters, there are certain situations when the issue goes well beyond just picky eating. There are certain conditions including child feeding disorders, sensory processing disorders, or avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) which can require more specialized support.
If you’ve noticed that picky eating has:
Lead to a failure to gain or maintain weight
Extreme anxiety and distress around food or mealtime
A fear of choking or vomiting
A lack of interest in food or eating
It might be time for some outside intervention. Have a conversation with your family’s doctor - they may look to put together a specialized child feeding team, which would also include:
An occupational therapist