The majority of children go through a phase of picky eating and they can outgrow it with some help, however for others it would go on until they restrict their food repertoire to very few items. These children sometimes do not outgrow their anxiety around new foods and become fussy adults.
Have you ever worried about to what extent picky eating is normal for your child? And, at what stage you might need to seek out a specialised feeding therapist? I want to help you to understand if your child is going through a phase or something more and what you can do in both cases.
First of all, let’s put the problem into context.
I personally don’t like the term picky so I will go on here using the word selective instead. When referring about feeding difficulties we can differentiate between selective eaters and problem feeders. Let’s see some of the red flags to look out for.
Credits: SOS Approach to Feeding by Dr. Kay Toomey
Your children might gobble on a food one day and the day after act like they have never seen that food before. Toddler’s eating habits are like a roller coaster, they can change from day to another. Selective eating rarely turns into a health issue associated with nutrient deficiencies and poor growth; although can be very frustrating for parents and transform the meal time in a stressful moment.
There are little things that parents can do when dealing with a selective child to make meals better for everyone.
1) Don’t call your child picky.
Children own the labels you give them so avoid mealtime conversation such as you’re so picky or oh, he won’t eat that! Don’t even bother, this will only reinforce the selective behavior. Moreover, if by any chance, they were in the mindset of trying new foods, you are involuntarily taking away that chance.
2) Avoid to give all your attention to the refusal.
I know that as parents you all love your children so much that you want to ensure they eat enough to grow and have a great mealtime. Unfortunately, sometimes too much loving attention brings the opposite effect and makes your child more selective and you more anxious. When anxiety builds for the parent the child can feel this frustration and the issue is usually worsened. Instead, pay attention to any small step your child does at the table and reward him/her with words of affirmation!
3) Respect their appetite.
As an adult you can make the decision that you don’t feel like eating a food so let your children do the same. Young children have a very fluctuating appetite, but this doesn’t mean that you should stop offering certain foods. Instead offer them anyway and if they refuse, tell them you’ll save the food for dinner or that they can leave it on their plate if they don’t want to eat it.
4) Avoid falling in the I don’t like it trap.
When children use the sentence I don’t like it they do it for a variety of reasons, but it is rarely because they don’t like a certain food. They often use this sentence on food they have previously liked or even on the one they never tried before. Make sure you exposed them to a food for 10-15 consequents times in different textures before you accept this statement.
5) Avoid offering alternatives.
Your home is not a restaurant where anyone can send the meal back and get something else. Being a busy parent, it is much more feasibleto cook only one meal for the family. Children learn quickly and at very young age that if they refuse a new food, you’ll offer them something they like, and doing this repeatedly, will reinforce their selective behavior. As an alternative, explain that this is the food in today’s menu and that everyone eats the same thing. Encourage them to welcome the food on their plate, to smell it, to touch it and to taste it when they are ready. Give them sufficient time to get comfortable with the food at the table with the family. If a toddler is healthy and they do not eat, you can assume they are simply not hungry. It is acceptable to offer some choices over food throughout the day. For example, you can say, Would you like strawberries or apple with your snack?.
6) Role model and make it fun.
This is one of the most important factors contributing to your child’s eating habits. Research shows that parents’ intake of certain foods (especially fruit and vegetables) predicts the child’s future intake. Your child will very early pick up on your eating habits and want the same themselves.
Involving everyone from table setting to food prep and making meal time an enjoyable family activity, is a great occasion to teach the children how to eat and kids are less likely to tantrum about the food served.
7) Don’t always hide veggies.
Avoid hiding veggies in omelets and meatballs all the time and instead expose repetitively you children to whole veggies range since weaning. You can involve older children in the preparation of food so that they are aware of what is inside the finished product and they have the opportunity to be already in contact with some challenging foods during the preparation.
8) Avoid using distractions.
The issue of using distractions, such as televisions, toys or games to get your children to eat something unconsciously, is that they don’t lay brain pathways for eating and don’t pay attention to the body’s signals which tell them when they are full. It might make feeding easier in that moment, but you are actually increasing the child’s selective behavior as in other circumstances, whereby the distraction is not present (such as visiting friends and eating together or even at nursery) they might panic in front of the meal as won’t be able to deal with it.
Do you remember when in the previous section in the tip number 5 I said If a toddler is healthy and they don’t eat you can assume they are simply not hungry? Unfortunately, this is not the case with problem feeders.
Let’s remember, that in both cases, when a child doesn’t eat is hardly never only a behavioral issue. For example, they might not feel hungry because of sickness, nor have slept well; or simply they might feel the task too challenging from a sensory stand point or they might not be able to deal with the food presented. Problem feeders usually encounter great difficulties with feeding due to a lack of motor and sensory processing skills.
It is important to identify problem feeders early because on a long term they can incur in health issues such as:
For these children a lot more work needs to be done to help them expand their food repertoire and many of them may need to see a specialised feeding therapist in order to make progress. With the help of a specialist they can learn how to eat new foods going through all the steps in the Eating Hierarchy from simply tolerating the food on their table, to smell it, to touch it and to finally eat it.
If meal times are a challenge for your child and this causes you anxiety try to put in practice some of my advices.
Below is a quick summary for the tops tips to deal with a selective eater:
Hopefully, this blog post will help you to move forward in a less stressful way. Don't miss my free baby feeding guide that you can find here. However, if these tips do not work out and you can spot some of the red flags for a problem feeder, please consider contacting a SOS (sequential oral sensory) feeding therapist to help your child. We love to work with children and parents!
Note: there are other types of feeding therapy, but SOS has proven to be the most successful and the most helpful to develop positive feelings toward food.