How to Feed a Picky Eater
By Jennifer House, MSc, RD
There are many influences on a child’s eating behaviour that make “picky” or selective eating very normal for toddlers and preschoolers. One clear influence is their physical and mental developmental stage. In their first year, children grow quickly; this fast rate of growth then slows, which leads to a smaller appetite. Young children are also striving to become independent, and one of the few ways they can exert this is with their food by saying, “No, I am not eating that!” Youngsters can also have “neophobia,” which is a fear of new foods. Children can also be erratic eaters due to other reasons such as teething, distraction, fatigue, mood and illness. This is normal, and if your child is hungry and given a choice of healthy foods, he or she will likely choose something to eat. If your selective eater is not growing normally, it’s time for a visit to the doctor to find out if there is an underlying health issue.
With smaller children, parents often get into the cycle of trying to force their picky eater to eat more than he or she chooses to eat. If you have attempted this with your child, you have probably discovered that forcing them to eat leads to an even stronger refusal of the food. Another problem with forcing a child to eat is that this will disrupt their natural appetite. This can cause disordered eating and weight problems later on in life. We want our children to grow up listening to their appetites, and we want to create a positive environment and feeling around foods. Parents play an important role with helping their children have healthy attitudes about eating and their weight.
Parent’s feeding responsibilities
When to eat: By one year of age, your child should be offered three regular, scheduled meals and two or three snacks each day. Do not feed your child snacks constantly throughout the day, or they will not have a chance build up an appetite for the next meal.
Where to eat: Your child should be eating at the table with the family, with no distractions (such as TV or toys).
What to eat: Offer foods from most food groups at every meal. For example, a boiled egg (meat & alternative), whole-wheat pita (grain), carrot sticks (fruit or vegetable) and cheese (dairy or alternative). Once your child reaches nine to 12 months of age, he or she should be eating the same meal as the rest of the family.
Child’s eating responsibilities
How much to eat: Allow children to take the lead in eating. If they are finished, do not force them to eat more. If they are eager for second or third helpings, give them more.
What they eat: Your child may choose to eat nothing at all! As discussed above, there are many reasons for their refusal. Don’t make a big deal of it.
Dealing with food issues
Here are a few common feeding struggles, and how to deal with them.
1) My child takes too long to eat
Be patient and give him or her time to explore, touch and taste the food. Toddlers need time to experience food, to eat and to learn how to use utensils. After a reasonable amount of time (20 or 30 minutes), remove the plate without a fuss. You can even set a timer if you like.
2) My child refuses to eat
Respect your child’s awareness of his or her appetite, and know that a skipped meal (or a whole day of missed meals) is not a concern. Your child will likely make up for it the next day or next week. Serve smaller amounts of food, as large portions may be overwhelming. Second or third helpings are fine, if your child wants more. Make sure snacks are served well before mealtimes (e.g., one to two hours beforehand), which allows your child to build up an appetite for the meal. Avoid becoming a short-order cook and making whatever your child demands just because you know they will eat it. This will quickly turn into a daily insistence on hot dogs rather than the family dinner!
3) My child refuses to try new foods
If you were forced to eat a certain food as a child, it’s quite possible you still have a distain for that food, simply because your parents forced you to eat it. Don’t make the same mistake: Whenever you introduce a new food, put a small amount on your child’s plate and gently encourage them to try it—but don’t make a big deal if they don’t want to eat it. Some children need to see a new food up to 15 times before trying it! Eventually they may pick it up, and next time they may touch it to their tongue; even if they then spit it out, this is all a step in the right direction. You can introduce new foods around other children, as kids want to do what other kids do. Or try offering the food in another form. For example, try sweet potatoes mashed, baked as french fries or steamed in cubes (dip is okay, too!). Finally, get your child involved in the grocery shopping and food preparation as much as possible. Whether gardening, picking out a new fruit in the store, washing lettuce or setting the table, getting your child involved will make him or her more likely to taste the new food.
4) My child will eat only one food
This is called a “food jag” and often leads to short-order cook syndrome. Remember, parents decide what children are offered to eat. You can feed your child the desired food as part of a regular meal, or make it the main meal periodically (e.g., “Tommy, we are having macaroni and cheese tomorrow for lunch. You can have some then, but today we’re having a cheese sandwich”).
The important thing is not to give them their chosen food at every meal and not to give it to them as a “back-up” when the offered food is refused; doing this will limit the variety of food (and the nutrients) they get. Don’t take food refusal personally, and stay relaxed. You will only make the food jag last longer if you make a big fuss about it, and either always or never offer the favoured food.
It is normal for children to be picky eaters, but there are ways to help them chew outside their comfort zone. Teach them to be independent eaters by encouraging their natural appetite and creating a positive atmosphere around food. Stick to your feeding responsibilities as a parent and aid your child to develop healthy eating habits.
Jennifer House MSc, RD, is a registered dietitian and the owner of First Step Nutrition in Alberta. For more information, visit www.firststepnutrition.com.