Trust Your Turtle: Patience with Picky Eating Progress

Here’s a story I read recently and shared with a client when she asked, “How can I get my daughter to accept new foods on her plate once she’s feeling good about her safe foods? Can’t I just put them on her plate?”
 trust your turtle

A woman was with her college geology class on a field trip by a river. She noticed a turtle up the river bank near a road and worried that the turtle would get hit by a car. So, she carried the turtle back down the hill and put it in the water. Afterwards, the professor came to her and said, “That turtle has probably spent weeks crawling up the hill to lay her eggs in the muddy slope and now she will have to start all over again.” The moral was, “Ask the turtle first.” (Gloria Steinem from her book, My Life on the Road) (See below our clarification of “ask”. Most children won’t want to be verbally queried along the way. Our moral is to be responsive to your turtle.) 


What does this have to do with feeding? Well, many children with extreme picky eating have anxiety around foods, and often have struggled for years. As parents, and even professionals, we hope for and want improvements NOW, or in say,  six weeks. But progress is generally slow, slow, slow, and it might not look like what we think of as “progress” (eating new foods). Sometimes when we miss early signs of progress (less anxiety, eating more safe foods, curious about foods but not yet tasting or eating them...) it is easy to want to rush the process, to pick up our little turtles and carry them back to the river or over the road. A parent’s need to help their child is overwhelming.


But this “help” might actually hinder progress– even scare the turtle back into her shell where she might stay for a long while until she feels safe again. Then she might make slow, tentative steps in the right direction, but these steps feel…

In our experience, having patience and trusting the process, and trusting your turtle to know what is working for them is really hard. Knowing how to not scare the turtle (i.e., appetite cues or curiosity) and how to help the turtle feel secure is the hardest part.  Doing your part to smooth the road out a little bit, flattening some bumps along the way, can give you that sense of participation and help that we all want to feel as parents. It is gentle facilitation that nudges them along without pushing them back into their shell, but recognizing what kind of assistance helps and what kind hinders is unique to each child/parent duo.


Being responsive and supportive with feeding and skills-building means that we listen to our children, and let their behaviors and responses guide us as we help them become the best eaters they can be.

Helping your child with extreme picky eating isn’t easy, and finding the patience is a demanding and ongoing task. Perhaps try cutting out a picture of a turtle and hanging it on your fridge or inside your cabinet door to remind you that progress can be slow.  Learn about and look for early signs of progress*, and find a support network of folks who get it (we love Mealtime Hostage private support group, and we are on Facebook at extremepickyeating too). Hang in there.

*Excerpted from our book, Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating.
Signs of progress. Stage 1: Less Stress
Usually the first positive thing parents notice is that the child’s stress decreases. Older children will often tell you flat out, “I like the way we do things now,” or “Can you teach Grandma our new rules? They still make me eat all my meat before I can have dessert and I don’t want to go there anymore.” Other times your child won’t come out and tell you, but you’ll know that she is happier. You may reflect: “She’s mostly eating bread and yogurt right now, which is tough, but she’s much more relaxed at mealtimes.” … As you see your child’s anxiety decrease, you may begin to feel a sense of relief, experiencing decreased stress yourself and not dreading meals quite as much. You will likely still be hyperaware of how many bites are taken and of what foods. Your anxiety may even spike if your child eats less in terms of amount or variety, but some fluctuation is normal. The first few days to weeks will be the hardest, as you wait for those first glimmers of hunger or decreased anxiety in your child.  Here are a few signs to look for, journal about, and share details on with your support system:
• Able to sit longer
• Not asking for the iPad as much
• Not asking for sippy cups or snacks as much
• Wakes up happier
• Sleeping better
• Decreased anxiety overall
• Less whining in the transition to meals
• Doesn’t need to be dragged to the table kicking and screaming
• Less agitated or fidgety
• Better behaved
• More willing to help prepare food
• Asks about food
• Serves food onto plate, though doesn’t touch it
Stage 1 lays the foundation for all progress that follows. The decrease in anxiety and increase in comfort and ease around food allows your child’s internal motivation to emerge and hunger and appetite cues to be heard. Stage 1 is most defined by this decrease in anxiety, hopefully for both you and your child. While you will surely feel that you are making “mistakes,” stage 1—for you—is about figuring out the steps, guided by your child’s reactions. One mom reflected: “What a relief it is not to be the food cop anymore. I feel like a mom for the first time in a long time— that I can actually enjoy sitting and eating with my child is a revelation— even if it is buttered noodles and toast for now.”
(Stage 2 describes increasing comfort and stage 3 discusses increasing confidence.)
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