If you are a parent of a finicky eater, you may dread coming to the dinner table. For many, a child's eating habits can cause a huge amount of stress at meal times; so much that it can get to the point where no one wants to eat together. A child who is considered to be a picky eater, may or may not have always been this way, but the picky eating tenancies are often linked back to a time when feeding strategies changed or a child had discomfort with eating (illness, teething, etc.). Understanding how and why it started is helpful in working to overcome it.
"My baby was never that interested in solids, but after two episodes of thrush, followed by teething, feeding became so much more challenging"
Picky eating is a common concern and typically hits around the age of 2 and starts to improve by about 6 or 7 years of age. Part of the reason many parents worry about their child's intake is due to their fluctuating appetites. Children's appetites fluctuate day to day, week to week. Try to avoid putting each meal and snack under the microscope to analyze what your child eats, or doesn't eat. Instead, look at what they take over the course of a few days, or even a week. It's also important to keep in mind that children need to listen to their body and only eat enough until they feel full. This means that they'll clear their plates some days, while pick away at it other days.
If you feel your child is not getting the proper balance of nutrients or are worried about their weight and growth, follow my 3 R's to improving family eating. These are simple strategies that you can start implementing today to help minimize the stress at mealtimes and get back to enjoying this special family time together.
1. Mealtime Routine
Keeping to a routine is such an important foundation for a number of activities in a child's life, including mealtimes. This helps to teach children there are many opportunities throughout the day to eat. Sticking to this routine also allows parents to feel good that their child has multiple times to eat. This means that if one meal happens to turn into a complete disaster, there are still other occasions throughout the day to offer something else.
Many families tell me their children eat well at daycare but not at home. This is common (and not surprising) for a few reasons. Daycare's have a strict schedule for activities, nap time, and for meals and snacks. This pattern is learned over time, and children start to expect a meal or a snack at a given time. Peer pressure is the other daycare side effect to better eating habits. Children want to fit in as much as possible. When they see their peers eating a meal, even the pickiest of children will have more desire to eat the same foods. For children who are not in daycare, similar eating habits are seen when a picky eater eats with friends or cousins. Lastly, kids know how to push parents buttons, and know what they can get away with. If they fight you on a meal, and know you’ll offer them something different, they will hold out for option B.
2. Mealtime Rules
Setting boundaries and establishing mealtime rules is the next layer to successful family eating. If children don't have a clear understanding of their role or what is expected of them, meals will often turn chaotic. Children need to be taught that certain behaviours are accepted at the dinner table, while others are not. For example, toys, games, and other distractions should be put aside so the meal can be focused on. Eating with distraction does not allow children to eat mindfully. They may end up over or under eating as a result.
Children also need to understand that they can decide if they will eat the food, and how much they want to eat. Eating mindfully and without distraction allows children this opportunity. Parents and caregivers are the ones who decide what foods are offered. These roles often become reversed, and children end up deciding what they are offered. This may happen directly with parents asking them what they want at a meal, or it may happen indirectly, by the meal becoming a battle, and parents catering to their child, offering them a favourite food instead of the family meal.
3. Mealtime Repetition
It takes time. Don't give up on offering a food if your child refuses to eat it once, twice, or even five times. Instead, try to be creative in offering those foods by changing the cooking methods (steamed vs. raw or baked vs. stir fried, etc.), adding a sauce or a dip, or even using a cookie cutter to make fun shapes (depending on the food). Some studies suggest that foods need to be offered upwards of 30 TIMES before some children will accept it. Bottom line - don't be discouraged if that new food isn't gobbled up right away. Avoid making a fuss about it, and try it again at another meal.
Looking for more advice? Contact me to book an individual nutrition consultation.