Picky eating often surfaces when children are around a year old and beginning to feed themselves. This eating behaviour may continue to preschool, a period during which the child experiences many critical functional changes that influence responses to food during mealtime.
What are these functional changes?
- Exerting emerging independence in making food choices
- Expressing developing taste sensations
- Slowing pace of growth
- Practising new skills such as talking, walking, running and climbing during mealtimes
These changes will influence the child’s appetite, attitude toward food and consistency in eating. Hence the saying, “the only thing consistent about toddler feeding is inconsistency”. It’s natural for a growing child to be picky.
So how should parents approach this picky eater?
- Remember your job is to provide your child with healthy food choices and pleasant mealtimes. It is your child’s job to decide which of those foods to eat and how much to eat.
- The brain governs our nutritional status – a dynamic system of checks and balances for nutrient excesses and deficits in the body. To maintain energy, the brain will signal “hunger” when there is shortfall of food, and “satiety” when there is excess. When there is a specific nutrient deficiency, your brain generates a craving for the food that contains the specific deficient nutrient. On the other hand, when there are excesses, your brain induces nausea for the specific food. This biological feedback will regulate your child’s appetite.
So how can parents reduce this picky issue?
- Teach your child to accept and eat the widest range of fresh and natural foods. Studies show a foetus can also enjoy the taste of his mother’s food. The priming of the five taste sensations ripens by about 6 months of age. Generally, the taste buds accept mild flavours. While sweet and salty are enticing, very strong sweet and salty flavours will be repulsive. At the same time, mildly bitter, sour, spicy and pungent flavours may not be repulsive. Hence, acceptance of a range of foods and flavours should start at an early age.
- Provide your child with healthy food choices and pleasant mealtimes.
- Cultivate your child’s preferences through repeated exposure to new foods. Perseverance is the key to success – some children have to be exposed to a new food more than 10 times before they are willing to try it.
- Have realistic expectations about how much your toddler “should” eat. After all, the child’s stomach is small.
- Allow your child to decide which of these foods to eat and how much to eat. This approach encourages the child to listen to his body’s signals of hunger, satiety, craving and nausea while making healthy food choices.
- During mealtimes, act positively and avoid any negative body language like disgust or disinterest when trying new foods. Your child will probably be less willing to try something new if you are also a “picky eater”.
- If your child is picky because of sensitivity to taste, smell or texture of the food, offer a variety of food at each meal but avoid those he dislikes. Introduce each new kind of food gently but frequently. Alternatively, mix foods he likes and dislikes.
- Put new foods next to foods your child likes to coax him into trying them. Encourage him to touch, smell, lick or taste the new food. Avoid preparing special meals for your child. Give him what the rest of the family is eating but in smaller portions. Once familiar, he may learn to accept new foods.
- Offer safe “finger foods” that your child can feed himself with if he expresses a desire to self-feed. Put a variety of finger foods on a plate and allow him to eat off it. Gradually increase the portion. Alternatively, offer him a spoon to hold while you’re feeding him. This lets him feel in control.
- Set your child’s meal out before he sits down if your child refuses to stay still during mealtimes. Keep mealtimes short – about 10 minutes or so.
- Let your child get up when he indicates he is finished eating.
- Aim for a nutritionally balanced week, not a balanced day if your child binge eats on specific foods in an erratic way. However, you should still encourage your child to eat well and develop healthy food habits.
- Seek medical help if your child refuses food because he has difficulty swallowing.
What should parents avoid?
- Forcing your child to eat.
- Using desserts as rewards. Your child will quickly learn how to make deals and ask for rewards for doing other things, such as getting dressed.
Remember, picky eating is natural and the “problem” is part of growing up. Picky eating outgrows itself once your child’s functional development matures. Picky eating is natural and the ‘problem’ is part of growing up”
Veteran paediatrician Dr Ang Poon Liat is the author of two books aimed at improving nutrition for the entire family. They are sold in a set of two for $85.60 and are available for purchase at the following outlets:
THOMSON PAEDIATRIC CENTRE
Thomson Medical Centre
339 Thomson Road, #03-05/06
T 6352 9100 / 6258 3353
PARENTCRAFT RETAIL SHOP
Thomson Medical Centre
339 Thomson Road, Level 1
T 6350 8848
THOMSON RETAIL PHARMACY
339 Thomson Road, Level 1
T 6350 8810