Healthy Eating for On-the-Go Families with Picky Eaters

Lisa Austin Mindset to Body, Nutrition Related Leave a Comment

This week, I wanted to share a case study with you. I discovered it as part of my ongoing training with Precision Nutrition, and as I read it, I was certain it would be something that would resonate with many of you.


Here’s how the case study reads:

It starts with 10-year-old Anthony, who is sitting with his mom in your office. His attention is focused on his iPod. He’s so riveted, it’s like he’s gazing into a portal to the next dimension.

“Uffff,” sighs his mom. “Anthony won’t eat–”

“Tony,” says Anthony, without looking up.

Mom rolls her eyes. “Tony. Fine. Anyway, Anthony won’t eat anything.”

“That’s not true,” says Anthony — sorry, Tony — into his iPod. “I like chicken nuggets.”

“And Cheerios. He’ll eat corn. Sometimes peas. Hot dogs. Tater tots or French Fries. That’s about it. Oh, soda of course. Juice, I guess.”

Tony shrugs. “Other stuff tastes gross to me.”

“You won’t even try it,” says mom, exasperated. “And now you get sick all the time, and you don’t have any energy. You’re pale. You just sit like a lump. I’m sure your eating is the problem.”

 Silence from Tony. You can hear the faint sound of bass beats through his earphones.

“I just feel like I can’t make any headway here,” says mom.

“Well, who buys the groceries?” you ask.

Mom looks guilty. “We do, of course. But you know, it’s hard when he’s asking for things. I feel like I can’t say no to him. I’m so tired of meal time always being a battle.”

You take notes. “If you had to describe the cupboards and fridge at your house, what would you say is in there?”

Mom looks even more guilty. “Well… I mean… I try to have some healthy stuff in there… but my husband likes the snacks too. My daughter, she’s 14, loves ice cream. And I’m afraid that everyone will get mad about it if I try to take those away. Plus, you know, it’s so hard to juggle everyone’s preferences, especially while my husband and I are both working, and trying to drive Tony and his sister to their activities.”

You persist. “And who cooks?”

“Me, most of the time,” says mom, “but my husband sometimes as well, although honestly, he could probably help out more… I just have trouble asking. It’s easier to do it myself, I guess. Often we’ll just get takeout because we’re so busy. It’s like, OK, I have 45 minutes between school ending and my daughter’s cheerleading practice, and that’s across town, and then Tony’s school is asking me to send snacks one day a week, and on the weekends it’s just a crazy whirlwind of trying to get everything done.”

You nod understandingly.

The picture is starting to emerge — the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Tony’s picky eating problem isn’t his alone. It’s a whole-family issue.

How much can you relate to?

Does any of this sound familiar? It seems like a hopeless situation, and that’s certainly something that is felt by those who find themselves in this situation. But it not un-solve-able. First, it helps to start by breaking things down into simpler terms, instead of tackling the big picture all at once.

Let’s start with Anthony (I mean, Tony):

He’s a 10-year-old boy who is lost in his own little world of video games and YouTube videos. At his age, he is starting to learn who he is, and is trying to demonstrate that he’s his own person with his own interests, likes, dislikes and ideas. While it may come across that he isn’t paying attention to what goes on around him, he is actually very observant, and because of this, he finds out more about who he is or wants to be, who others are, and how he is different from those around him. But, he still wants to fit in with others around him who are his age. Unfortunately, he has been getting sick more often, and his mom is concerned for his well-being.

Then, there’s Mom:

Like so many of us, she is just doing her best to keep everyone happy. Her heart is in the right place, but she is so concerned about upsetting the household that she will back down at any sign of resistance, instead of standing up for what she believes is best for her family. She works outside of the home, while also keeping the house and driving the children to their extra-curricular activities. She is tired and stressed; finding time for herself just isn’t a priority.

The sister:

Tony’s sister is a cheerleader who is busy with practice and school and all the things that keep teenaged girls busy. She knows she needs to stay slim for her cheerleading, but wow, ice cream just somehow makes everything better.

Can’t forget dad:

Then there’s Dad, who is in the background, working each day and coming home to a stressed-out wife and two young adolescents who are trying to demonstrate who they are. He is tired and quite content to do his own thing—instead of helping, he has been letting his wife do whatever she can and it seems to be working, as she seems to keep everything under control. Pizza night? That’s cool. Snacks and takeout? He’s with the kids on this one—it’s easy and tastes yummy, so what’s the problem?

Because the son is the one who has been getting sick, Mom only seems to be focussed on his eating (or lack thereof), rather than the whole family’s habits. Tony clearly isn’t getting enough nutrients for the needs of his body, as he is mostly eating processed, high-calories foods, and therefore has low energy (one of the reasons he only plays games or watches videos on his iPod). Getting Tony to eat whole, nutritious foods will have to be a family affair, and will make things easier on mom in the long-run.

Healthy Eating for On-the-Go Families

But, what’s their action plan? Here’s what I would suggest:

  1. Prioritize Tasks. Mom needs to eliminate some of the chaos by prioritizing her tasks and bringing some order into her day-to-day schedule. Identify areas where others could pitch into help—not only will this lighten the load for Mom, but it will teach positive, healthy habits to the children while they are young.
  1. Eliminate Unhealthy Snacks. If the foods that shouldn’t be consumed are removed from the house, they aren’t there to tempt anyone, and there isn’t anything to fight over. Replacing those foods with the ones that should be eaten by everyone will show that the entire family are eating the same foods (so, no one is missing out). Give each family member the opportunity to pick their favourite fruits, vegetables and other healthy snacks, so they are available for them to choose from at all times.
  1. Plan Meals & Prepare Meals in Advance. Advanced meal prep would help, especially for days that are time-crunched with the kids’ extra-curricular activities, and still make sure that everyone in the family has a healthy, complete meal. Tony is picky, but he also may just be trying to assert himself as his own person. By including him, and the other family members, in a meal planning meeting, he will feel like his opinion matters. “Meal Planning Meetings” could be held where each family member is responsible for choosing a meal that incorporates a lean protein and at least two types of vegetables. Other meals could be crock pot creations that can be made quickly and easily as “go-to” favourites for those busy days. Then, a grocery list can be made from the meal choices each week.
  1. Kitchen Time = Family Time. Because the other sister is older, she is a role model for Tony. Having her help in the kitchen can take some of the stress off of Mom, while teaching both Tony and the sister some life skills, and bringing them all together into the kitchen. Everyone will feel responsible for their role, and accomplished for having contributed to the family meal. Dad can get in there too, chopping up ingredients and cleaning up as things are prepared to make for less clean-up later on.
  1. Grocery Shopping: Mom and family members need to challenge themselves to stay to the outside aisles in the grocery store (fresh, chilled, and frozen foods). If they move into the inside aisles, anything purchased needs to have ingredients that can be pronounced and understood. Otherwise, it stays in the store.

 It’s not going to happen overnight… but don’t give up.

Creating new routines and a new way of eating won’t happen overnight. Tony’s family will have to figure out what is right for them. Perhaps a Sunday family ritual could be each person attending the Meal Planning Meeting with a recipe and creating the grocery list. Maybe that can be something that happens right before the family gathers for a game or movie, or before everyone disperses for some “me” time during the weekend. “Jobs” can be assigned for grocery shopping, with one parent and child doing the actual shopping, and the other parent and child putting the food away. Different family members could be made responsible for preparing their own suggested meal, and then one of the crock pot meals.

Need some time to transition?

There is likely to be a transition time for implementing these new routines, and also for moving away from the unhealthy snacks. A good trick is to insist that each time someone wants one of the old snacks (if they are still in the house), they first need to eat a serving of fruits or vegetables. Then, they could have the old snack if they are still hungry five minutes later. This is only recommended as a gradual way to eliminate the old snacks altogether.

Share the responsibilities. It’s OK, it won’t hurt them!

Sharing the responsibilities of healthy eating and the life skills of cooking proper meals and preparing grocery lists will empower the children, help them feel better and have more energy, while taking some of the stress off of Mom so she has more time for herself and to spend with the family members. Tony won’t be sick as often, Dad will be more active at home, the sister won’t crave ice cream as often with the family working so well together and the doors of communication open.

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If I can help you and your family implement healthier eating habits, please let me know. It’s such an important part of having a healthy and happy family dynamic.

In the meantime, download my Quit Dieting Starter Kit. Learn portion sizes, use a template for meal planning, and find out what macros are and how to use them to eat with your goals in mind.

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