Can you prevent picky eating?
Having a picky eater in the family can make mealtimes a battle, Paediatric Dietitian Jenny Douglas from Jumpstart Nutrition shares how to navigate this stage with calm.
If you have a fussy eater in your house, I see you and feel you – the struggle is real! Fussy eating can occur at any age of your child’s life, but most commonly around two years old. Although it’s a very normal developmental stage and can help toddlers to not put everything they find in the garden in their mouth, it doesn’t mean it’s easy! At toddlerhood, your child develops a normal ‘neophobia’ (fear of anything new) towards foods as a protective mechanism. But, if your child has been exposed to a wide range of foods regularly in the first two years of life you will find that the selection of food they will eat during their fussy stage is broader and is more likely to meet their nutritional needs. Some children continue to be fussy eaters past toddlerhood. This can be triggered by a long-term health issue, or can be a learned behaviour that over time. If you want to shorten the length of time your child has fussy eating behaviour, here are some tips:
KNOW YOUR ROLE AND YOUR CHILD'S ROLE AT THE MEAL TABLE
There are specific roles that you and your child play at the meal table and embracing these roles can help reduce some of the stress:
Your role as a parent/caregiver in feeding is to:
+ Decide WHEN your child will eat (eg breakfast, lunch, dinner)
+ Decide WHAT your child will eat (eg family meal, carrots, fruit)
+ Decide WHERE your child will eat (eg at the table)
Your child’s role in feeding is to:
+ Decide WHETHER they are going to eat it
+ Decide HOW much they are going to eat (eg two mouthfuls or two platefuls)
These roles are great to remember to help reduce family stress around mealtimes. Your job as a parent is to provide good, nourishing food in a relaxed environment, but as a parent you can only give your child the ‘opportunity’ to eat, you can’t force them to eat it. Asking your child to take ‘one more bite’ or bribing them with ‘if you eat your veggies you get…’ will often lead to mistrust and can result in short-term eating success rather than creating a long-term confident eater.
Children are born with an amazing inbuilt ability to regulate exactly how much food they need to grow and thrive, so you don’t always need to get them to finish their plate, but instead can let your child decide when they’ve had enough. Children eat differently to adults, some days they will eat you out of house and home (eg during a growth spurt) and other times they will only eat a few bites (eg when they are overtired). Children also might eat vegetables one day and meat the next, so looking at what they eat over a week rather than each day can be a better indicator of whether they’re getting all that they need.
Of course, there’s some flexibility in the above roles. For example we can offer a child a choice of an apple or a banana and help them feel autonomy around choice, but ultimately as a parent you have decided that they are eating ‘fruit’.
THERE ARE STEPS TO EATING
Eating food is an experience that involves a series of steps:
+ TASTING OR LICKING
Every child is different in their confidence in trying something new. Just like at the playground there are some children that race down the slide without thinking about it, and others who want to observe and take their time. Eating food is no different and when you’re offering a new food it may take your child 15-20 times on each of the above steps before they get to the final stage of swallowing it. So, frequent and regular exposure to foods is key.
Fussy eaters can feel worried about being presented a plate of food that they’ve never seen before. Imagine if you went to a restaurant and were served soup that had eyeballs floating in it, you’d probably freak out too! Therefore, we need to think about helping our child come to the table without worry. An easy way to relax your child is to present 1-2 familiar or favourite foods alongside 1-2 new foods.
STAY RELAXED AT MEALTIMES
We all see the pictures of happy families sitting around the table looking like the whole meal is an enjoyable and relaxed occasion. However, the reality can be quite different if you battle with a fussy eater, a toddler trying to wriggle out of their highchair or a teenager who won’t get off their phone! But how we react to these behaviours can either lead to a peaceful experience or an all out mealtime war. Parenting is exhausting and requires being in the right mindset to deal with tricky behaviour. Before asking your children to the table, have a mini check-in with yourself. Are you feeling calm and ready to deal with mealtime battles? If not, can you take a few minutes to do some relaxation breathing? Or do you need a small amount of your own dinner first to give you enough energy to cope?
It’s helpful if children know what is expected from them at mealtimes and making this clear beforehand can help reduce stress. You might like to have a sign up in the kitchen of what you expect to happen at mealtimes – eg wash hands, sit at the table, don’t throw food, etc. Adding visual guides for younger children or those with special needs, can help them get prepared for family meals.
Having meals with your child as much as possible also helps them move towards a varied diet. A baby learns to eat from watching you and they continue to learn about eating well from their parents and caregivers.
A baby may not be ready to eat salad but watching Mum or Dad enjoying salad will help them towards accepting salads in the future. Eating with your child also helps you to relax at mealtimes rather than all your focus being on what your child is eating. Children love feeling in control of food choices, so ‘serve-yourself’ meals such as wraps, tacos, or a roast with vegetables laid out on the table can be a way to help your child feel like they have choice – but ultimately you have decided what food is presented. Having little tongs that can be used by your child can help them be independent when serving themselves. This way of eating can be useful to allow your child to self-regulate how much food they want to eat and brings a bit of fun to the table as they try to figure out how to fill a taco or how to use tongs (expect some mess!).
CHECK HOW YOUR CHILD IS SEATED
A child needs to be well supported in their seat to enjoy the mealtime. Think about the last time you sat at a bar stool (yes this may have been a while ago), but you might remember that the longer you sat at the stool with no back support and your feet dangling, the more you wanted to leave the seat and move somewhere else. Your baby/child feels the same way when you don't seat them properly. This is one of the most important solutions for fussy eating. An adult dining chair is not set up for toddlers or preschoolers, and children are often moved to big chairs too early. Ideally, your child should be at a seat that allows them to be near, or at, the family table. They should have their feet and hips at right angles and have a place to put their feet. This could be a footrest on a highchair or as simple as a pile of books under the table to place their feet on. They need a comfortable back support and may require straps to help them stay in their seat. You may need to add a rolled up towel to either side of your child’s hips to stop them from slumping to the side or falling forwards when they are seated. An ideal seat for children is one that can be modified as your child grows.
USE THE FIRST 12 MONTHS OF LIFE WISELY
At around six months old your baby will most likely start on solids and in that first year of life most babies are happy to try a wide variety of foods. This is your golden opportunity to offer as many different flavours, textures and foods as possible to your baby. Research shows that babies offered a wide variety of foods and textures in the first year of life overcome the normal fussy eating stage at around two years old much quicker than children that have been offered packaged/commercial foods, or a limited diet in the first year of life. So, if you have a baby ready to start on solids, think about offering predominately family meals and don’t feel scared to add your family’s favourite flavours, such as herbs and spices (without salt), so that they are getting used to these flavours early.
WHY DID THEY START BEING FUSSY IN THE FIRST PLACE?
Children are not deliberately trying to be fussy eaters, and the fussy eating path is often started after a series of events. This might be after the normal developmental phase around two years old, or it may have been after an illness. Even though it can be frustrating and worrying dealing with a fussy eater, steer clear of force-feeding in any way as it’s likely to make the situation worse. Children can also become fussy after an illness, but again, with regular exposure to family foods this should resolve itself. When fussy eating continues for more than a few months, it’s time to investigate why this is happening. Constipation is very common in children and is a common cause for fussy eating, who wants to eat if you are full of poop?! Other health conditions such as reflux, IBS, Autism/ADHD, or food allergies may predispose your child to fussy eating behaviour and these need support from a medical team and dietitian to resolve.
Fussy eating can cause considerable stress on families, so don’t hesitate to reach out to your doctor and a dietitian if you need help, or if it’s impacting your child’s growth, overall health or their ability to participate in social occasions. Remember regular exposure to foods in a relaxed family eating environment will help progress your child over the next few weeks, months, and years towards becoming a happy, confident eater.
Jennifer Douglas is a Registered Dietitian with over 15 years' experience and is an expert on baby and child nutrition. With and online clinic to help guide you through managing food allergies/intolerances, reflux, gut problems, growth issues, fussy eating and mealtime battles, she is also able to meet with groups of parents online as a individualised workshop. For more information including self-help videos on starting babies on solids and family nutrition, visit jumpstartnutrition.co.nz or Facebook: facebook.com/JenniferDouglasDietitian/ and Instagram: @jumpstart_kids_nutrition_nz
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 57 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW