How to Navigate COVID-19 Grocery Shortages When Your Child is a 'Picky Eater'

Juliette Virzi
Little girl looking distastefully at cereal bowl

In the best of times, parents of “picky eaters” are often challenged to find foods their children will eat. But now, due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) — the new-to humans virus that causes respiratory infection leading to serious or fatal health complications — we are experiencing unprecedented grocery shortages. This can turn the already challenging task of finding foods picky-eating children enjoy into a next-to-impossible one.

If you are the parent of a child with sensory issues that make them especially sensitive to textures and tastes, or a child with a feeding disorder like avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), you might feel the pressure of grocery shortages more intensely than the average family. If you can relate, we see you and want you to know you’re not alone.

Thankfully, if you find yourself in this situation, there is hope. We spoke to Child Mind Institute’s Cynthia Martin, Psy.D., who specializes in assessing young children with developmental concerns, and asked her to share tips for navigating this difficult time if you are the parent of a selective eating child.

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Here’s what she told us:

Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for content and clarity.

1. What advice would you offer parents who can’t find the foods they know their child with a selective diet will eat because of the COVID-19 grocery shortages? 

Martin: Get creative and reach out to managers of the local grocery stores and restaurants for help. Some grocery stores are imposing limits on certain items so that families do not stockpile. However, if one of the items is something that falls in your child’s regular (selective) diet, talk to the store manager and explain the needs of your child. If the store does not have the item in stock, they may be willing to keep a few aside for your child when the next shipment arrives. It may help to have a letter from your child’s pediatrician.

If you can’t find something at your local grocery store, local restaurants have been a great option recently for many families who are in search of foods like breaded chicken, hot dogs, hamburgers, French fries, mac and cheese, etc. Some local restaurants in New York City, for instance, have sold and/or given away batches of food items in bulk.   

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2. Do you have any tips for making quarantine meals fun for children who are “picky eaters”? 

Martin: Set a weekly schedule with fun meal times interspersed throughout the week. Fun mealtimes can include: outside picnic, dinner and movie, make your own pizza night, finger food “tailgate” in the driveway and breakfast for dinner. If your child enjoys helping in the kitchen, have a “kids chef” night and let your child choose the meal and help make it for everyone.  

3. Many children with selective diets or sensory issues struggle with having a disrupted routine. How can parents keep meal times predictable and consistent during this unpredictable time?

Martin: Try to keep meals and snacks offered around the same time each day. Pack your child’s lunch the same way you would for a regular (out of the home) school day by preparing the lunch in the morning and putting it in lunch containers. Try to avoid endless snacking. If your child grazes on snacks all day, mealtimes are going to be difficult. Prepare snacks in the morning and put them in individual containers. Make sure your child knows when snack time will occur and then have him or her choose from the prepared snack options. 

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4. What advice would you offer a parent feeling overwhelmed with trying to find foods their child will eat during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Martin: Keep your expectations low. Remember that this is not the time to try and convince your child to eat new foods. Your child’s selective eating may worsen during this time. If you are working from home, you will be around your child (or children) more than usual, so it will be easy to feel more anxious about your child’s picky eating. Shelf those feelings for the time being and remind yourself that you just need to make it through this unprecedented period. If your child regularly eats five types of foods and you can only find two, it’s going to be OK if he/she only eats those two foods for the time being. At some point, the grocery stores will be fully stocked again and things will return to normal. 

5. How can parents of children with selective diets reach out for support in their communities during the COVID-19 outbreak?

Martin: Follow the Child Mind Institute’s Facebook page. We have a range of parent support resources on the page and are hosting weekly Facebook live sessions with licensed clinicians. 

For more support during the pandemic, we encourage you to reach out to The Mighty community by posting a Thought or Question with the hashtag #Parenting or #COVID19. Our community wants to rally around you, no matter what you’re facing today. 

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