Bargaining With A Picky Eater

Contributing Author: Elle G, M.S., CCC-SLP

Blue Bird Day and child eating bread image

We’ve all done it before- we beg, we plead, we bargain, and we bribe- we would do anything to our picky eaters to eat! What is the caregiver’s role in prompting picky eaters and what effect do these prompts have during mealtime? While there are no “magic words” to get your child to eat a full serving of green beans during dinner, there is research behind different strategies and their effect on a child’s consumption that can be used both in the clinic and at home.  

The Research 

 Jordan et al. (2020) sat down to observe 199 children during mealtime with their primary caregiver to study the different types of prompting provided when a child was presented with a plate of green beans and how these prompts affected the child’s consumption. The children were sorted into 2 groups, picky eaters and non-picky eaters, based on a parent questionnaire. There were two categories of prompts studied, which included coercive control (i.e., when the caregiver used threats or bribes to try to get their child to eat) and autonomy promotion (i.e. when the caregiver gave the child more of a say in whether or not to try to food.  

The Results 

As you may have guessed, caregivers of picky eaters used more prompts and the picky eaters themselves consumed half the amount of green beans as their non-picky eater counterparts. In terms of promoting, coercive control was not effective when it was used on picky eaters and appeared to reduce the amount eaten by non-picky eaters. Praise, a subtype of autonomy promotion, was the only prompt that appeared to increase the number of green beans consumed for both picky and non-picky eaters. Overall, the more prompts the caregiver gave, the fewer green beans were consumed.  

What does this mean? 

 You may be thinking “easier said than done.” You are not alone. Truth is, getting a picky eater to eat is no small task and every child is different. Getting a child to eat something they do not want to eat is a struggle that every parent, caregiver, and feeding therapist has and will continue to experience. Both caregivers and therapists are no stranger to a little bribe. Our parents said it to us, and we will likely continue to say it to our children: “If you eat your vegetables you can have ice cream for dessert!” However, if we can all take one thing away from this post is that praise is a wonderful thing for every child! Work up the SOS feeding hierarchy (explained below) to exploring food together and pair each small step with praise. Don’t forget to praise your efforts as well and seek comfort that you and your child’s therapist are in this together! 

Take home: Using the SOS Feeding Hierarchy 

The SOS feeding hierarchy is used to increase familiarity and build a tolerance to novel food with the goal of increasing a child’s repertoire of consumed foods through play and interaction. Start with the steps you know your child will be successful in and use praise and individual interests to progress up the latter. Take it one, small step at a time ensuring that the steps between levels are small enough for the child to tolerate. You can always scale back depending on your child’s response! Here is a quick outline of the hierarchy: 

 

  • Tolerates 
  • The child tolerates the physical presents/sight of food, whether it be tolerating having the food in the same room, at the table, or on their plate.  
  • Interacts with 
  • The child uses a utensil, napkin, or other food to touch the target food without directly touching the food to their skin. 
  • Smells 
  • The child wafts the smell toward them or picks up the plate to smell the food.  
  • Touch 
  • The child touches the food to their skin or body part including fingers, hands, or face.  
  • Keep in mind- the closer the food gets to the child’s mouth, the more threatening the food may appear. 
  • Taste 
  • An action that results in the child tasting and processing the taste of the food. Can use small “snake tastes” with the tip of the tongue to assess response. 
  • Eating 
  • The child chews and swallows the food or at least part of the food. It can start with first biting and spitting out and work up to chewing and swallowing.  

And remember- praise, praise, praise! 

References 

Jordan, A. A., Appugliese, D. P., Miller, A. L., Lumeng, J. C., Rosenblum, K. L., & Pesch, M. H. (2020). Maternal prompting types and child vegetable intake: Exploring the moderating role of picky eating. Appetite, 146