Toddlers and preschoolers often request fad foods, turn up their noses at any food with a hint of green or only eat food presented in an unusual way. They tend to dawdle over meals and quickly lose interest or be tempted elsewhere. We call this stage ‘picky eating’. It is quite different from a more troublesome eating problem called food Neophobia (a fear of new foods) which tends to be related to personality issues such as anxiety, making it harder to resolve. Because picky eating is a developmental stage, it generally doesn’t inhibit healthy development in children. However, true Neophobia can reduce dietary variety and place stress on parents and caregivers.
How long will this go on for? I hear you ask, despairing of your little one’s nutrition. For some, the picky eating phase may persist right up until school age. Given the right environment, most children will spontaneously grow out of this phase at around that time. Healthy children rarely starve themselves and in fact are very good at meeting their daily energy needs even if it isn’t in the pattern we would prefer. The best advice is to be persistent, don’t make a fuss, and accept that the behaviour will pass. As long as your child is offered healthy food, all you can do is trust that what they choose to eat will be good for them.
So, don’t despair, take consolation in the fact that your child’s behaviour is quite normal, and keep offering them a wide variety of foods along with their “flavour of the month”. Use positive reinforcement and fun, and be a good role model.
Children reject foods for many reasons. It may be that they find the appearance and smell of the food off-putting. Perhaps they see other family members or their peers rejecting the food and wonder why they should be made to eat it. They may even be having trouble getting the food onto a fork or into their mouths; perhaps they are unwell or they might even be teething. Other reasons could be a natural suspiciousness of new things and their increasing ability to exercise their independence or control. So, as you can see, there are many possible explanations for picky eating and each child will be different.
Forcing or coercing a child to eat a food is inadvisable. Try to set up a good meal-time routine and also discourage snack-eating too close to main meals as main meals tend to be more nutritious.
Always encourage your child’s choices: they are more likely to eat a food they themselves have chosen.
Another way of involving your child in their food selection is allowing them to gather food, e.g.: growing/picking vegetables in your own garden or picking them at the supermarket and involving them in the preparation of meals.
Remember that food rejection is a normal behaviour for most toddlers and preschoolers. Meal-times should always be family-orientated and enjoyable. Do not overestimate the importance of togetherness during meals for a child’s overall development. And don’t forget that children learn from you so be a good example. Try to invent ways to incorporate rejected foods and make the meals attractive to the eye. Remove the plate when they have finished and offer a healthy snack later if you feel they may still be hungry.
Don’t coax, beg, use trickery or rewards (which can have the reverse effect) as this will always backfire on you and cause more strife. Children can be put off their food when eating becomes stressful. Take it gently, don’t rush your child through their meals, teach them to eat slowly – remember, it takes up to 20 minutes for the brain to tell the body that it has been sufficiently fed; this will also avoid overeating. Whenever possible, ensure that your child does not eat alone. Again, let me emphasise the value of togetherness during meal-times for your child’s overall development. Eating in front of the TV is not advisable as the meal and those eating it should be the center of attention.
Remember, it’s up to parents and carers to offer nutritious food for children to choose from!
Likewise, if you are still concerned about the health status of a picky eater or a food Neophobic child, you may wish to discuss the concerns with a Doctor, Nutritionist, Dietician or Child Health Professional.
This information has been provided by Leanne Cooper. Leanne is a qualified nutritionist and mother of two very active boys.