“Oh dear picky eaters” I hear you say. I feel your frustration being a mummy of a toddler and preschooler. It’s a hot topic of conversation at our play dates and at home among family and friends. One thing I am certain is most kids go through this stage and will come in and out of this “label” at varying degrees and eventually eat a balanced diet. I remember I was once a “picky eater” – I think I gave my dad most of his grey hairs growing up, however, apart from this I was an angel child ;-). I would not have recognised my adult self during this stage. Yes, as an adult I eat well and “normally” and have a “positive relationship with my food” and of course my body image. I think I still amaze my parents about my transformation.
The definition of a picky/fussy eater is different between families. It could look like ‘only’ eating certain types of food and avoiding others. Eating lots one day and not much the next day. They may only want to feed themselves, or only be spoon-fed, eat white foods, eat yoghurt, chicken and strawberries. These behaviours are a normal part of kid’s development. They usually pass through these fussy stages quicker than they came, although it can feel like forever!
My clients and friends with kids often tell me about their child’s eating behaviour as if it is something that is totally crazy and problematic. I always endeavour to reassure them that fussiness is normal for kids as they are learning about their exciting world and what they can control. They are showing their independence and often too busy to eat and therefore food becomes less of a priority. They have worked out that they can control their intake of food and the reactions of their parents as a consequence. Aren’t they smart?!!
I then encourage these parents to try to take a step back from the situation and continue to offer foods the family eat together. That’s right, there is no need to make a special meal for the “picky eater”. If the child is hungry they will eat. They will not starve themselves. I know it is difficult for you to see this behaviour especially if you were brought up with the food culture where you must eat ‘everything on your plate’! Unfortunately, this culture interferes with the child’s natural ability to regulate his/her appetite (knowing how much to eat and when to stop) and leads to the child being above their most healthy body weight.
I also encourage the parent/caregiver to become mindful of their reactions to their child’s behaviour. Yes, this is hard especially if your child is not doing what they “should” be doing or what you “want” them to do after you have slaved away in the kitchen. The more noise you make over this behaviour the more likely your child is going to resist the food even more and the picky eating phase will likely stick around a bit longer. Your behaviours around encouraging, persuading and coercing your child to eat are not going to do them any good in the long-term. If continued, you could damage their relationship with food and body image by setting them up for overeating in the future.
What to do:
- Don’t make a huge scene, punish, persuade, push, force or coerce your child to eat. It leads to a bad association with food.
- Offer the family meal to your child. Some parents like to encourage a one bite policy to taste the food. This may be helpful to encourage your child to taste what is being offered. Don’t push this too hard, as the one bite policy could border on the side of persuading, pushing, forcing or coercing your child to eat, which is not helpful in the long-term.
- Inform your child of the family’s expectation, i.e. eating the same meal together.
- Do not provide additional food/meal if the meal is refused.
- Check-in how the child is going throughout the meal. Are their belly’s still hungry or are have they had enough? What colour is the food? How does the food feel/taste/look/sound? Eating is an experience that nourishes us.
- If your child continues not to eat the meal. Inform them that you will place the meal in the fridge for when they are hungry later on or tomorrow.
- Don’t stop providing meals based on your child’s previous rejection as it often takes many exposures (~15 times) before a child tastes/likes the food. They will learn to eat family meals.
- Hiding vegetables in meals should not be the only strategy to use to increase vegetable consumption. Your child needs to learn to eat veggies like the rest of the family does.
- Don’t use food as a reward or punishment.
- Don’t bribe your kids with “You can have dessert after you eat your meal”. This gives the impression that dessert foods (whether they are “sometimes” or “everyday” foods) are superior to the rest of the meal.
- Make meal times a relaxing and pleasant experience. Turn the TV off.
- Let your child play with their food. Taste is not the only sense we use to eat our food…
When to seek expert help from your GP and/or APD:
- If you are worried about your child’s growth
- If your child is unwell, tired and not eating
- Meal times are causing anxiety and stress in the child or yourself.
I’d like to hear your story about your child’s picky eating behaviour and whether they have passed through this stage. It may well be motivating for others to read. Keep the delectable in dietetics!
- Why do kids that eat with family excel in life?
- Where Did It All Go Wrong With Nutrition?
- How to build a positive relationship with food
- Normal eating checklist: What does it mean to eat normally?
- Why I don’t focus on weight: Celebrating #AHHW
- School holiday fun food activities = Best parent ever!
- Children’s Story: Elephant’s Dilemma of Difference