Having a child that is a picky eater may be extremely distressing for any parent. Many parents worry about what their children eat and don’t eat. There are simple strategies to try adopting during meal times to ensure you are getting the most out of your child’s eating.
Let’s begin with some common feeding pitfalls
- Lack of meal and snack structure
- The child eats and drinks whenever they choose. (Note: water should always be available, otherwise, the child waits until determined meal/snack time.)
- Parents limit the menu to only what the child likes
- Parents coerce or put pressure on the child to eat foods
- Food used as a reward or punishment (ex. if you eat your vegetables you will get dessert)
As the parent, you can help your child develop positive feelings around eating and trying new foods by setting structure, role modelling, staying positive (not stressed/angry) and avoiding the tendency to cater to your child’s demands. Rest assured, your child will not starve themselves! If these strategies seem like “tough love”, I encourage you to persevere knowing that your child will begin to respect and understand the new boundaries set to develop eating in confidence.
There are some habits that can worsen fussy eating too. Sometimes our best efforts to manage picky eating can actually do more harm than good. Look out for these feeding pitfalls that can prolong picky eating and make it more deeply ingrained. (Don’t feel guilty if some of these apply to you!)
- Making separate meals for your picky eater
- Pressuring your child to eat during meals (this can sound like “just one more bite.”)
- Letting your child snacks continuously throughout the day, “grazing” on preferred foods instead of sitting down for planned meals.
- Serving the same foods many days in a row.
- Serving ONLY new food at dinner, without a balance of “safe” or preferred foods.
- Letting kids decide what’s for dinner.
Here are our top tips for building your child’s confidence when eating
- Have regular, scheduled meal and snack times (Child should feel hungry but not ‘starving’)
- Arrange “sit-down” family dinners where parents can role model eating different foods BUT there is no pressure for the child to try new foods.
- Teach your child to say “no thank you” instead of “eww” or “yuk”.
- Always pair a new food with a familiar/accepted food (ex. If carrots are enjoyed include these along with peas, which may be new).
- Put 1 or 2 food items on the table that the child always accepts (i.e. bread and milk).
- Allow your child to choose WHAT he/she would like to eat (from what is being offered at that meal) and HOW MUCH he/she wants to eat.
- Always offer the same food for your child as the rest of the family. You are not a short-order cook!
- Napkins can be used by the child to remove food from their mouth if the child decides they do not want to swallow it; thus, making the child braver to try new foods.
It is important to note that a picky eater is different to a resistant or avoidant eater. If you feel your child is eating less than 15 different types of food per week.
A “resistant” or “problem” eater will often:
- Eat 15 to 20 foods or fewer
- Refuse of one or more food groups (often preferring carbohydrates)
- Refuse of one or more texture types (often preferring crunchy or soft foods, not both)
- Tantrums or meltdowns at mealtimes
- Prefer one flavour (often sweet or salty)
- Prefer strong flavours OR bland flavours
- Prefer foods of the same colour
- Prefer certain foods to always be the same brand. For example, only chicken nuggets from McDonald’s
- Gag when trying new foods
- Display anxiety over the presence of new foods on their plate, on the table or even in the room
- Find the smell of certain foods to be noxious
If you feel your child struggles with picky eating, it would be advised to consult our Paediatric Dietitian to ensure your child is meeting their nutritional requirements and to assess if any supplements are needed.
By Jenaed Brodell, RD