Picky eating anxiety is real. In my opinion, it’s the main reason why your picky eater refused to try new food. Unless you first ease your picky eater’s anxiety, you won’t get very far in helping them overcome the fear of trying new food. Growing up as an extremely picky eater, my anxiety reared its ugly head during almost every mealtime. This typically happened when I was eating with new people or in a new place. However, it usually ended after the mealtime ended. I was able to leave my anxiety at the table and move on with my day. But one day in Philadelphia, my anxiety stuck around for hours after I tried chicken pot pie.
My Anxiety is Overwhelming
I have said before that I do not enjoy talking about my picky eating. It brings back all of the negative emotions, memories, and fears I feel when I try new food. My anxiety overwhelms not only my mind but my body too. My heart rate quickens, my stomach and throat clench, I start sweating, and I feel like I will throw up. These are classic signs of Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder, which I know now. But when I was younger, I did not realize that it was unusual to feel like that about food. I thought it was what everyone felt when they tried new food, so I never told anyone how I felt. I never dealt with my anxiety, so I gave it free rein to hold me back. But there was one night on a mission trip that I knew something had to change.
I was tired, hungry, and had no lunch plan. We were given hot food on the go to get to the church we were going to serve. I had no idea what the food was going to be, and only brought a protein bar and water for a snack later on. The cooks handed out the lunches – chicken potpies. At that moment in my journey as a picky eater, I disliked grilled chicken or cooked veggies. Heck, I still don’t like peas even if they’re fresh! And I certainly don’t like surprises. So when I received my potpie and a spork, I had a minor panic attack. My sister and my boyfriend said I should eat it cause they thought it was good. One of them used the classic line, “how do you know you don’t like it unless you eat it?” So I ate it. Then immediately wanted to spit it out. The chicken was so cooked down that it fell apart in my mouth. The peas were squishy and I didn’t like their taste. And I had no idea what else was in that pie. I couldn’t take another bite, so I think my boyfriend ate the rest of it.
To make matters worse, I was in a van full of my friends who knew about my picky eating but didn’t understand it. Also, the trip organizer was right there, watching me. I do not remember her name, but I do remember her face when I refused to eat another bite. It felt like I was a spoiled toddler throwing a temper tantrum for not getting a piece of candy at the store. But worse. I was a 17-year-old being looked at like I was throwing a temper tantrum.
It was humiliating.
My Anxiety Took Me Down – Literally
That night we were having a worship service and I couldn’t stop thinking about lunch. I couldn’t get the leader’s look out of my head. I couldn’t release the tight hold of embarrassment off my chest and shoulders. It led me to break down in tears during a song and running to the bathroom. I fell to my knees in the bathroom stall and begged God to take my picky eating away from me. I couldn’t breathe. Looking back, I think I was having an anxiety attack but didn’t know it. I was so lucky that no one else came into the bathroom during that time because I would have been even more embarrassed and ashamed of myself.
After about fifteen minutes, I was able to get myself under control to go back to the service. The lights were still low and the music was playing, but my boyfriend was waiting for me at a table. He was standing next to me when I broke down into tears, so he knew I was struggling with something, but he didn’t know what. He asked me about it and asked if he could pray for me, but I wouldn’t tell him what was wrong.
Why I Refused to Open Up
I was so embarrassed that I didn’t want to tell him about how overwhelmed I was. I was too afraid of his reaction, so sure that he would be embarrassed that I was so emotional. Looking back at it, I’m sure he would have tried to help ease my picky eating anxiety, but in the moment I just felt hopeless. I don’t think anyone else knew something was wrong, and that’s exactly what I wanted. I thought if people knew what happened I would be judged, called a baby, and told that if I just got over my picky eating this wouldn’t happen. It is completely unfair to everyone there, but didn’t believe that anyone would take me seriously and help. I thought I’d get the same reactions I’ve had in the past. I was especially unfair in this assumption towards my boyfriend because looking back, I know he would have listened and talked through it with me. But that’s what anxiety does to me. In the moment, it makes me afraid of everything and everyone around me.
Unless you want your child crying on the bathroom floor, you need to ease your picky eater’s anxiety before you have any chance at getting them to try something new.
Recognizing My Anxiety
I finally opened up about my picky eating anxiety when I met Cassie at college. Also, I that I’m not the only picky eater in the world, this was groundbreaking for me. Finally I found someone that has never pressured me and understands my fear of trying new food! This gave me the confidence I needed to take ownership of my picky eating and not let others control the narrative. I felt more comfortable expressing how I feel when I try new food. Once I did, I quickly realized that is not how most people feel.
It didn’t take long for someone to point out that what I was feeling was anxiety. From then on, I started facing the anxiety head-on and encourage you to do the same.
How to Ease Your Picky Eater’s Anxiety
Asking them Questions
Ask them how they feel when they are trying new food. Depending on their age, these questions will be a bit different. For younger children who do not know how to express their feelings, you can ask questions like “Do you feel anything in your belly or chest when you think about new food?” or “What does your neck feel like when you try new food?” For older kids it can be more direct, “Does your heartbeat speed up?” or “Do you start to sweat?” For less leading questions, simply asking “How does your body feel when you are going to eat new food?” These questions will make them stop and think about what they’re experiencing. It could be the first time they notice anything is different. When you want to know and understand how they feel, they will feel heard and cared for. Gaining their trust is vital to ease your picky eater’s anxiety.
Breathing Exercises to Ease Anxiety
I am a huge fan of breathing exercises and meditation. Though I don’t do them as much as I’d like, they have helped my mind to calm down and reset. I loved doing breathing exercises in choir because I felt so good afterwards! One easy exercise is to breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, then breathe out for 4 seconds. Do that for about a minute and their heartrates should slow to a normal rate. I’d recommend doing this after an emotional moment at the dinner table to help your picky eater reset and return to their meal.
Prepare them for Dinner
The fear of the unknown is so real for me, and I know your picky eater feels the same way. If I don’t know what I’m eating, I don’t eat it. My bonus daughters have tried the “close your eyes and open your mouth game” on me and learned very quickly that I do not do that. Sure, they were upset and it isn’t the greatest thing to turn your kiddos down so quickly. But honestly, every time I decided to participate, it was something I didn’t like. As kids, they don’t fully understand that just because they like something, that doesn’t mean everyone likes it. Unfortunately, not all adults grasp this either. Don’t be that person! Tell your kiddo what they’re eating and ease their anxiety.
Don’t Embarrass Them
Yes, picky eating can be frustrating. But don’t talk about it negatively or make fun of the issue. If you do this, you will immediately lose your child’s trust and then their anxiety will return. I still have people make fun of me for my picky eating. Like when we got to a new restaurant, some people always drop the joke, “Let’s hope they have chicken tenders!” I hate that joke. No, I haven’t told those people to stop. I get nervous that they’ll either feel really bad or just make another joke about it. The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know, right? I’ll deal with that joke to avoid having a new and potentially more painful joke take its place.
Remind Them That Not Liking A New Food is Not the End of the World
If they try something and don’t like it, move on. Don’t dwell on it, instead continue eating and finish the meal. Later, once they have had time to get over the new food, ask them about it. Simple questions, like “What didn’t you like about the food?” or “Why do you like [safe food] more than [food they tried]?” This will help you narrow down a list of options for different food for them to try. Or, it could help you know how to prepare the new food the way they like. This will help ease your picky eater’s anxiety because you are listening to their thoughts and opinions, not telling them what they should be feeling!
Use my free food tracker to help keep track of what they do or do not like and why!
Laura Kessler is a recovering extreme picky eater, certified childhood nutritionist, and bonus mom of three wonderful daughters. She is passionate about helping parents of picky eaters help their kiddos move past the fear of trying new food, while she works through it at the same time! Feel free to reach out to Laura at Laura@theunpickyeater.com with any questions you have about this guide!