“Errrh! Yuck! I’m not eating that! ” – Picky eating in children

Some children are picky eaters. They limit the amounts they will eat –  some reject foods and some are unwilling to try new foods. Contrary to what many may think, picky eating is not linked to eating disorders late in life. However, picky eating and meal time behaviour problems are linked to other behavioural problems in children.

Picky eating usually has its basis in three areas: developmental stages, personal preferences and family practices.

From the earliest of developmental stages, a child’s food intake is very much driven by depletion. As they feel hungry, they will seek food. As an infant grows, so do their nutritional requirements and they begin to need solid foods. Although, it is usually when the child becomes a toddler that they can begin to get picky about food. It has been suggested that this may have, at one stage, served an evolutionary purpose. In a period on history where we foraged for all of our food, if a child was cautions or refused to eat new or unfamiliar foods, the child was protected from eating toxic or poisonous things. So, some picky eating can be a “stage of life” thing.

Young children know what they like.

They have preferences. Young children have no regard for food nutrition and cannot yet read the nutritional labelling on food products. They eat things because they like the way that they taste.

Food is more than taste –how food looks and feels can influence whether children like a food or not. Some children have tactile aversions to the ways that certain foods feel in their mouth or prefer or reject food based on its appearance or colour.   Your general practitioner might refer to a specialist to explore the tactile defensiveness further, but usually only if the sensitivity is prolonged and there are other types of rigidity affecting the child.

For most children, though food preference is strongly linked to the preference of their family / parents. Researchers  have found that the tastes that young children prefer or enjoy are influenced by the flavours that they are exposed to in breast milk.   Families can also strongly influence what food is offered to the child or how a child eats.

Often, in an attempt to manage picky eating, the dining experience can become quite the playground…and sometimes even a war zone.

Parents can get over-concerned about picky eating. This can cause them to pressure and cajole a child into eating. Forcing a child to eat more may seem rational for parents who come from an environment where a lack of food was a problem – from war-torn, impoverished backgrounds or even from very large families. Some cultures also have a strongly held belief that to feed a child is to love a child and that a child is not being well-parented unless it is chubby and well-fed. It is also a relatively common practice to use food to calm or reward a child. So, there are often layers or multitudes of ways that a child’s environment influences food choices and eating behaviours.

Additionally, parents can encourage pickiness by only offering a limited repertoire of foods. Some parents will only offer children the food that they will eat or will even cook separate meals for their child. When it comes to picky eaters, we know that they are often reluctant to try new foods. Families, knowing this reluctance, will often avoid exposing the child to new foods. This is where picky eating can become entrenched. If picky eating is sustained for longer than two to three years, medical professionals do begin to get concerned about nutritional deficits and especially so when the child is limiting meat or good protein substitutes and fruit and vegetables for highly processed foods.

More recent research  has found that there are fewer picky eaters in families where eating is enjoyed. A worried or hostile environment can lead to picky eaters or to children who eat because they are made to by controlling others and not because they are paying careful attention to their bodies own demands for food. Eating problems were lower in families who enjoyed eating and also, those who enjoyed cooking.

So, with all of this information in mind, some tips to avoid picky eating in children….

  • Realise, that as a child develops, their appetite will change. For example, from an infant to a toddler, a child’s nutritional requirements and appetites decline and their eating patterns can become unpredictable. This is normal and you do not need to force the child to eat large quantities if they are healthy and growing.
  • If a child is not eating a meal, do not battle. Offer them another nutritious choice at the next meal or snack time. Always continue to offer healthy choices.
  • Be sure to keep food zones battle free. Mealtimes associated with worry and frustration and not pleasure will only grow eating problems. Turn off the television and involve your children in the enjoyment of the whole process of growing, buying, cooking and eating food.
  • Children need to be exposed to new foods before they will accept then. Sometimes it will take multiple exposures. Be sure to expose children to new tastes.
  • Try incorporating a “try something new night” each week or so where the whole family tries a new cuisine, vegetable or style of cooking. Explore foods and cultures together and celebrate trying rather than the amount of calories consumed.

….food for thought, maybe?

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