Help! My child is a ‘picky eater’
‘My child is so fussy’ is one of the frustrations I hear Mums express most often. I can certainly agree that I have had my own experiences of my children being ‘selective’ in their eating. My little girl, at 10 months of age, decided that she did not want to eat any food from a spoon and that it was only going to be finger food from then onwards. It did not stop there. The other day, I bought some beautiful oranges. When my kids saw that they were red inside and not the traditional orange colour that they are used to, they asked me if I was giving them something ‘poisonous’. No amount of coaxing managed to get them to try one even when I tried to convince them of how deliciously sweet they were!
‘I don’t like the lumps. I don’t like it mixed together. Please pick out the onion and garlic’
There is no doubt that the pickiness regarding food type, colour and presentation can be one of the most frustrating aspects of being a Mummy particularly after you have poured love, time and effort into being creative and nutritious!
Why does food fussiness happen?
It is part of the normal development of infants, toddlers and young children to learn to be more independent and to experiment with how to express this. There is so much that is out of their control but having a say on what and how much they eat is something that they can control by simply clamping that little mouth shut or turning their head or saying ‘no!’
Neophobia is a real phenomenon and occurs to varying degrees in young children¸ most often between the ages of 1-6 years. It is the fear of anything new and this can manifest as a fear of new foods. Some have very severe forms of ‘being afraid of new foods’ and others more mild experiences of this.
Negative experiences that an infant or child may have experienced at the time of having a particular food can then make them averse to that food. Children who have had reflux often don’t like milk and may never really want to drink much milk and may even not be interested in other dairy foods.
What can we do about it?
The length of time it may take for children to become a bit more adventurous with food can vary and in some cases, this may unfortunately take quite some time. There are however, a few things that parents can do to try to help manage food fussiness…
Firstly, it is important to determine how much of an impact the fussiness is having on your child’s nutritional intake and consequently, nutritional status. If your child chooses not to eat broccoli but will eat every other fruit and vegetable, then there really is no need to be concerned and you can be assured that they will be meeting their micronutrient requirements. If however, your child chooses to avoid all forms of protein, for example: chicken, fish, beef, ostrich and eggs then it is important to ensure that your child is getting adequate iron from other sources and a diet balanced with protein from vegetarian sources.
Check to see that there are no other medical problems.
Sometimes food fussiness is the manifestation of other medical problems. In the case of reflux, an infant may refuse feeds and this could be associated with a cow’s milk protein allergy. Always check with a dietitian or paed that nothing else is going on.
Role model healthy eating habits and meal times you would like your child to have. Children learn by example which we see in many aspects of raising children. The same goes for food selection and mealtime behaviour. It is important to have healthy food options like fruit and vegetables available for your children and for them to see you eating these foods. With busy lives and working Mum’s and Dad’s it can be very tricky to fit in mealtimes when everyone is together, but working towards simple ground rules like no eating in front of the TV and aiming for one parent/carer to be at a meal time can be a big help in laying down the foundation for a good healthy relationship with food, and beneficial from a social/communication point of view for families.
Have realistic meal and meal time expectations.
Don’t overwhelm your child with large portion sizes or expect them to sit at the table for an hour. It is important to know what an appropriate portion size for a food group is, for your child’s age and how many servings they should be having. If they are only 3 years of age, they do not need to eat 2 cups of porridge for break-fast and there is probably little benefit to getting them to stay sitting at the table after 45 minutes just to eat another floret of broccoli.
Stick with familiar foods and/or child friendly foods and make small changes.
Work with what you child likes to eat. If your child prefers things to be presented separately that is fine. If you child likes ‘finger’ shaped types of food then make fingers of fish or chicken and serve with a sauce/veg on the side. Children may enjoy mild spices so don’t be scared to be a little more experimental with subtle flavours.
There is no need to create a piece of art on your child’s plate each time you present a meal but it can be helpful from time to time to have a little fun with food shapes, colours and textures. It can certainly help children to be more interested in their meal and they are more likely to try something knew when they are having fun and engaged with you at a mealtime.
Reward children for achieving small food goals
If we have worked hard at something we all like to be rewarded and the same is obviously true for kids. If you have had a family goal to eat one mouthful of a new vegetable at every mealtime for a week and your child has done it – it is important that this is recognised. It will help build their confidence and they are more likely to work at the next food goal!
There are instances, where despite your best attempts it can take time for a child’s eating habits to improve. In these cases a good general multivitamin and/or supplement drink if necessary, can be very helpful. It will ensure that your child’s diet is adequate in micronutrients whilst you and your child slowly deal with the food variety aspect.