Feeding picky eaters

Make mealtimes less frustrating when your kids won’t eat everything on their plates

By Edie Shaw-Ewald

If your family mealtimes are tense and frustrating, then I bet you have a picky eater. Even the most patient parent can be reduced to pleading and pressuring when a child refuses to eat the meal that you’ve prepared. After all, our role as parents is to nourish our children. 

Picky eating and changes in the appetite of a child are part of normal development. Being picky about new and unfamiliar foods has probably led to the success of our species by saving us from eating poisonous plants or rancid foods. 

But sometimes there may be a medical reason for a child’s refusal to eat. Oral motor control such as chewing or swallowing or digestive issues such as reflux or severe constipation may need to be ruled out if you feel your child is exhibiting signs more serious than just pickiness. 

If you’ve ruled out medical reasons and you feel your child has an extremely limited diet and seems to have a severe reaction such as gagging and vomiting to trying new foods, it may be food neophobia or Avoidant Restricted Food Intake Disorder. Most children with these extreme food avoidant behaviours have had sensitivities since infancy or shortly after solid foods were introduced. These types of issues are not just pickiness or stubbornness. Make sure you get an assessment from a medical specialist.

Research has shown that begging, bribing, tricking and punishing doesn’t produce a healthy intake and attitude toward food. Instead, it causes children to feel anxious and eat less at mealtime. Instead, try these techniques and strategies to encourage healthy, successful eaters and calmer, more enjoyable family mealtimes.

Be the gatekeeper. Limit unhealthy processed foods coming into the home. Those include foods advertised to kids, most individually packaged foods and sweet or salty snack foods. You don’t want to constantly be monitoring their intake of these types of foods. If they aren’t in the house, your child will have less access and can’t beg you for them until you cave. Also, these types of food promote a very limited palate that is partial to sweet and salty.

Structure meal and snack times. Don’t allow or facilitate all-day snacking. Instead, have structured meal and snack times. Children feel safe with some structure to their day. When they know a meal or snack is coming up, they will be less likely to feel the need to ask for snacks. A little hunger is a motivator to trying a new food.

Let them play with their food. Let them touch, taste and maybe even politely spit out a bite of a new food. Studies show that children will explore a new food up to 15 times before they will accept it. This exploring includes touching and putting it into their mouth. It may also mean they occasionally spit food out.

Division of responsibility. This method, first developed by dietitian and counsellor Ellyn Satter, makes so much sense. It’s a parent’s responsibility to provide healthy food and to choose place and time for meals and snacks. It’s a child’s responsibility to choose what, how much and whether to eat that food.

Serve most meals family style. Instead of plating up the food at the kitchen counter and presenting it to your children, put at least some of the choices in serving bowls and let the child decide what and how much to eat. This approach goes along with the division of responsibility.

Don’t serve separate meals. Making some adjustments to the amount of spice or whether their vegetables are mixed together are reasonable requests. But don’t whip up a complete second dinner. Children will not learn to become successful eaters if they don’t have exposure to new foods.

Have make-your-own meals. These types of meals can be fun and relaxing for the whole family. Try it with tacos, salads or sandwiches. This is just another way of letting your children choose what and how much to eat.

Never give up on a particular food. Don’t come to a conclusion that your child doesn’t like a particular food. It may take more than 15 times before they accept a food; it may take years or they may never like it. But don’t give up on your child or the food.

Expect variations in intake. Variations in appetite will be related to growth spurts, activity levels, and moods. Respecting the variations in their appetites helps them to learn to listen and trust their own hunger cues.

Don’t fret about food jags. A child may choose to favour a particular food at mealtimes. Food jags (choosing to eat the same food item all the time) are normal and will usually pass.