Throughout my years as an early year’s practitioner I have heard parents’ concerns regarding their children’s diet countless times as well as having experienced a little ‘picky eater’ at home myself.
‘Picky eating’ is when a child (or adult) refuses foods often, or eats the same foods over and over. Picky eating usually peaks in the toddler and preschool years. Do you have a ‘picky eater’? Is your pre-schooler suddenly refusing to eat foods he/she has loved in the past? Is she/he absolutely refusing to try new foods and insists on eating only a select few items every day? Are mealtimes becoming power-struggles? If your answer is yes to any of these questions, know that you are not alone. This happens to more parents of pre-schoolers than you might realize.
Picky eating often surfaces around 18 months of age—a time when many children start feeding themselves. They can now choose what and how much to eat, giving them some degree of control over their lives. Toddlers are also learning lots of new skills like talking, running, climbing, and more. During a time of great change, children often seek order and routine as much as possible, including sticking to the same small group of foods. This consistency can help them feel safe and secure during a period of rapid change. This phase might end in a short period of time or continue for years. Let’s take a closer look at the main reasons behind ‘picky eating’ and tips and strategies that might help to inspire our little ones to try a wider variety of foods.
THE BIGGER PICTURE – REASONS BEHIND PICKY EATING
· SENSORY: Children have 10 000 taste buds – twice as many as adults. They experience strong flavours, spiciness and textures. Some children might enjoy the variety of sensory experiences, for others it might cause feelings of dislike or even anxiety.
Does your child seem hesitant to play with gooey materials (wet mud, dough, slime, etc.)? Do they dislike the feeling of wet clothes? Do ‘wet’ foods like cut grapes, cottage cheese, jelly cause discomfort? Do ‘dry’ foods like crackers, toast, etc. cause them to chew for extremely long periods of time? Do they have trouble swallowing denser foods like raw carrot sticks or meat? If so, they could be hesitant to try foods due to a dislike of the sensory experience they create. Or, they might be worried that a new food will be like a remembered sensory experience from a past food.
· MEDICAL: there are some medical conditions common to preschool children that can lead to a change in their eating habits. This includes gluten sensitiveness, lactose intolerance, constipation or acid reflux. If you notice that your child refuses to eat certain foods and sometimes experiences nausea after eating, stomach cramps, loose stools or constipation a good idea is to keep a food journal. For two weeks you would write down everything your child eats and drinks including the amount and note down the reactions and experiences your child has. Then share your food journal with your paediatrician.
· BEHAVIOURAL: Are you experiencing power struggles in the morning when deciding what clothes your child will wear? Is bedtime a struggle, with power struggles on getting to sleep? Is tidy up time becoming a power struggle, to get your child to participate in tidying away? If you can see other areas of your child's day where they are demonstrating exerting control over situations, then the picky eating may simply be an extension of this stage of development.
· ENVIRONMENT: This one is tricky for us to evaluate. Environment involves everything that surrounds your child; our daily routines, where we eat, how we eat, what we eat, our expectations for how and what our child eats, our language/interactions with our child at mealtimes, our choices of involving our child in food-related pieces of daily life. It is the people, interactions, verbal and nonverbal expectations, furniture, surroundings, and external distractions.
TIPS AND STRATEGIES
ROUTINE: Like all aspects of the preschool child’s life, having a predictable and reliable routine is crucial. This provides stability to their lives, allows their bodies to become regulated for when to eat, when to sleep and is a proven method to having a healthy life.
· MEAL TIME ROUTINE: At home; eat at the same time each day, with parents and children eating together so children can watch parents enjoying a variety of foods. Whenever possible, avoid drastic changes in time and eating on the run e.g. in a car.
· TEAMWORK: Get your children involved – getting the plates, cups and silverware; cutting fruits and throwing away any excess food. They can even clean the table; help to clean the dishes and putting them back where they belong.
HAVE FAMILY MEALS EVERY DAY: Many families face barriers such as extracurricular activities, shift work, etc. However, whomever is at home, should eat together. There should not be separate meal times for children and parents. The children would miss out on great opportunities for bonding, role modelling and fun when they aren’t eating with their parents.
· ROLE MODELING: Children’s eating habits are influenced by what they see others around them eating. If there is a lot of junk food around, it’s more than likely that is what they will want to eat. Make sure your child sees you eating new and healthy foods too! Imagine, if your child is being asked to eat his lima beans, but Mom never eats them? You'd be amazed how much seeing a loved one eat a new food will affect your child. Make it a game - "let's take a bite of broccoli at the same time - one, two, three... BITE!!"
· MAKE IT A SPECIAL EVENT: This means eating at the table - no toys, no video games, no tv's - just fun, family time to talk, laugh, share about your day, and bond. Remember that mealtime is not solely about eating but there is also a social aspect to it that makes it more enjoyable. Sitting around a table as a group or even just with you and your child where multiple people are eating encourages picky eaters to eat also. A change of mealtime location is also helpful – maybe try having a picnic in the back garden in order to make it fun.
REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS: Supporting your child in learning their cues for fullness, likes and dislikes and provide positive feedback for listening to their bodies is very important too.
· ONE BITE RULE: Encourage your child to have one bite of a new food, but let them know that you will respect their choice not to have more. Even us adults, we don’t like all the foods and we would not like to be forced to eat it. When children are given the freedom to explore with the respect that it is ok not to like all food, they are way more adventurous to try new food and often end up liking the new food.
· FINISHING ALL THE FOOD ON THE PLATE: Be realistic about how much your child can eat. His/her stomach is about the size of the palm of his/her hand. Don’t force your child to finish all the food on their plate out of guilt e.g. bringing up disrespect of the person who made it or guilt that food is being wasted. Pre-school children need to be able to learn their bodily signs for fullness and be encouraged to follow these signs.
INTRODUCING NEW FOODS:
· WHEN YOUR CHILD HAS SENSORY ISSUES: There are ways to support your child with eating new foods while supporting their sensory concerns. If you want your child to try eating broccoli - but the first attempt of giving it raw didn't go well, try it again - but cooked differently. Try the broccoli another day steamed, then again, another day stir fried - the key is to try presenting the same foods multiple times, in multiple ways - to see if there is a change in your child liking them.
· SERVING FOOD MORE THAN ONCE: It can take 10 to 15 tastes of a new food before your child gets used to it. There are so many factors that affect children’s’ everyday lives - how well they slept the night before, if they just had an upsetting social interaction with a sibling, if they are coming down with a cold, the list goes on and on. Don't give up - keep trying it and you may find they like it one day.
· NEW FOODS ALONG WITH SOME FAVOURITES: If your child loves pasta, try to add some vegetables to the sauce. Or, instead of chips with his-her favourite meal, try sliced mango. As long as there are some ‘favourites’ with the meal, they will have foods to fill their tummy if they don’t like the new items. But they might!
· BE IMAGINATIVE: The preschool child loves imaginative play; so why can't meal times be included? Want to get your three-year-old to try some green and red pepper slices - pretend to be turtles swimming in the ocean, and SNAP a bite off! Or, how about introducing dress-up dinner every so often? This type of make-believe may go a long way toward creating a fun event where everyone will be inspired to eat their dinner and could lead into some great mealtime conversations.
· INVOLVE YOUR CHILD: Create a menu for the week together. Go shopping and get the foods your need for cooking together. Let your child help with preparation – cleaning and cutting vegetables, peeling, stirring, all your child is capable of managing with the food prep. When your child is involved in the process, he/she feels ownership and pride in their accomplishments and is heading into meal time excited with the product of their hard work.
· INSPIRE: When introducing new food, talk about it first. How it looks like, its shape, colour, smell, taste, its origin and how it grows. Take your child to a local vegetable/fruit farm, or explore the different lands through books and images. It might spark their interest and inspire your child to try that ‘cool’ fruit or vegetable.
· THINKING OUT OF THE BOX: If all else fails and you can’t get your child to eat enough of a food group, get creative in your meal prep. Mince up steamed veggies, and add them to your spaghetti sauce. Add some minced zucchini to your child's favourite banana bread muffins, etc. This will help ensure your child is getting the vitamins and nutrients they need, during the period of ‘picky eating’.
· Limit snacks a couple of hours before the main meal
· Be aware how much liquid is being drunk during meals – liquids limit the amount of food they can eat.
· Avoid bribes – children need to learn to be intrinsically motivated to eat healthy, balanced diets to ensure a healthy life, not in order to receive a treat (sweets, etc.) This can create long lasting unhealthy habits and lifestyle.
· No punishments – children need to view eating habits as a healthy part of life and by enforcing punishment (e.g. if you don’t eat your vegetables, you can’t go play outside) you would undermine the real goal – your child having a positive relationship with healthy foods. With punishment of any kind, vegetables would become the enemy rather than best friend.
· Don’t prepare an alternative meal for your child if they don’t want to eat what is being offered. By allowing them to refuse the meal altogether and preparing them a completely new meal - they are learning that they have control over the situation; which can lead to many behavioural issues down the road. Chances are, there is at least one thing at the meal they like, and even if that's all they choose to eat for that meal - they are walking away fed. Their nutrition will balance out with the next meal(s), and if they are truly hungry – they will eat!
· Don’t make a big deal about it - the truth is, the more you make a big deal out of it, the less inclined he/she will be to oblige and it can make him/her anxious, upset and more likely to do the exact opposite of what you are looking for. Children eat when they are hungry and they will come around sooner or later.
· Don’t give your child sugary and salty snacks – It is important to set boundaries and stick to clean, healthy and nutrient-rich snacks for your children. If they try a few bites of your chocolate bar and they reach for your bag of potato chips, they will crave these sugary and greasy treats and turn their noses up at fruits and vegetables.
While it might seem just as overwhelming to follows these rules, tips and strategies as it is to deal with picky eaters, do not worry. The tricks and tips that work for one parent, might not work for another. You might find your own tricks that work and share it with us too. It is about trial and error when it comes to getting on the same page with your children and improving mealtimes once and for all. We, at Little Gems Montessori, will be happy to support your child in any way we can and keep the flame of inspiration going to try new foods and follow healthy eating habits.
This article is written by Eva Levcikova who is Little Gems' manager in our Larnaca setting. If you'd like to talk about picky eating, give us a call: 96 557661.