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Parenting Picky Eaters in a Pandemic: A Conversation with Family Nutritionist, Nishta Saxena

If there’s one thing registered dietician and nutritionist Nishta Saxena wants every parent of a picky eater to know it’s that they’re not alone.

“I’ve worked with families from over 100 different countries and the problems are really all the same. Parents are stressed because their child won’t eat vegetables, and the child [becomes] stressed because the family is stressed. It’s a very multi-layered issue.”

While some parents think their child will grow out of picky eating, Toronto, Canada-based Saxena says that’s usually not the case. Without help and support, 20% of children who are picky at the age of eight will go on to be very picky adult eaters. And to make things worse, “it’s very hard to get correct information [about nutrition], to get support, and to manage the stress and anxiety from both the parent and child’s perspective,” says Saxena.

So, what can parents do?

“The first thing is to really step back and take some deep breaths. Remind yourself that you are not a bad parent,” she says. After that, there are many steps that can help change your child’s relationship with what they are eating. This includes:

  • Offering a variety of nutritious foods at each meal;
  • Not labeling food as “good” (i.e. vegetables) or “bad” (i.e. cookies);
  • Introducing new foods over time;
  • Taking some of the pressure off by engaging in ‘food play’ where kids get to interact with vegetables in a fun way, such as using a piece of broccoli as a paintbrush.

Saxena is concerned with how the pandemic has impacted both children’s and adults’ relationships with food. Healthy food has become extremely expensive, and “the past two years has caused a huge spike in emotionally driven eating,” she says. “Canadian adults have gained an average of 30 lbs and there’s been a 50% increase in eating disorders and that includes adults, teenagers, and children which is a very unfortunate side effect.”

On the other hand, there have been some positives as well, says Saxena. Families are eating together at the table which is good for everyone’s mental health, and children have become more involved in cooking. “Generally, if you’re cooking at home, you’re probably eating more whole food.”

Pandemic times or not, when it comes to feeding your picky child, “it’s important to let go of your expectations as parents, that if we serve our child something they have to eat it. That is going to cause a lot of friction,” says Saxena. “Your love for your child is not represented by their food choices. That being said, it’s definitely something that can change with consistent work.”

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