PICKY or FUSSY EATING is relatively common and is characterised by a toddler or child eating a limited amount of food, particularly restricting vegetables. Picky eaters are unwilling to try new foods and have strong food preferences.
Characteristics of Parents of fussy eaters:
- They are more likely to prepare a separate meal for their child
- They offer rewards for eating and limit privileges when their child does not.
- They frequently comment negatively on their picky eaters food habits
- They unconsciously create stressful mealtimes by negative, critical behaviour
- They may be force-feeding
- They may be health obsessed and forbid unhealthy foods which their child craves
- They may even be controlling food options because of their child’s weight (and again, negatively focus on the same)
- Mothers who are unwilling to try new foods (neophobic) themselves coupled with Fathers who regularly eat unhealthy food themselves
Thus it is clear, the attitudes / behaviours of parent(s) at mealtimes (both the child’s and their own) have a tremendous influence on food acceptance in children.
Why is fussy eating a problem? Picky eaters have been shown to:
- Consume fewer calories and therefore fewer nutrients for growth
- Weigh less
- Suck less vigorously for the duration of breastfeeding
- Be at increased risk of developing anorexia nervosa
- Be more likely to exhibit problematic behaviour both currently and in future
- Eat limited variety of foods mainly those high in fat, sugar and salt and refined grains (zero-nutrition foods).
- Require food to be prepared in very specific ways
- Be less likely to accept new foods (food neophobia)
- Have strong likes and dislikes regarding food
- Develop this behaviour before the age of 5 yrs
Often-times, the reason why a child is being fussy is obscure and may be due to technical difficulties. These need to be diagnosed by a paediatrician. They may in fact just have trouble chewing. Such a critical element to good digestion and health, many children face this basic problem and mealtimes are a nightmare for them.
What are the reasons for a child not chewing her food properly?
1] The child may be exploring her power / control over intake...the parent can wait for a couple of weeks and give soft foods in the meantime.
2] If the child's speech is also delayed, in addition to frequently choking or gagging while eating food and spitting / vomiting out half-chewed food, then seeing a speech therapist is a necessity. This type of child may also have had difficulty breastfeeding and weaning onto solids.
3] Sometimes, children can have 'tongue ties'. Normally, the tongue is loosely attached to the base of the mouth with a piece of skin called the lingual frenulum. In babies with tongue-tie, this piece of skin is unusually short and tight, restricting the tongue's movement. This prevents the baby feeding properly and also causes problems for the mother. A small correctional surgery may be required which will help the child greatly.
4] The child's lower and upper jaw may not be properly aligned causing inability to chew properly. Do visit a dentist.
5] A toddler may just need to figure out how to chew.
6] Anaemic children can have a reduced appetite and difficulty swallowing. Of course here parents need to find the true reason for the anaemia (maybe even worms) and resolve that first.
In case of 1 and 5, the following may help…….
- From a Mother's forum...."We had her (toddler who wouldn't chew) holdup her hand and count up to 5 with one finger for each chew. It took us a minute to get her to do it but then she loved it and even went up to ten at times. "
- Offer small amounts at a time and allow the child to feed himself. Cheerfully offer to feed him by hand if he doesn't. Place a piece of food directly between the molars as this will encourage chewing action.
- Give it time if there are no other problems. Allow your child to discover the joy of crispy textures. Be patient. Threatening, pleading, forcing will never work long-term for our beloved children. Positive behaviour, calm exterior (even if worried inside) and gentle encouragement can work wonders.
At this point, you may have realised that you will have to make some kind of effort to effect change. Trust me, whatever effort you put into changing your little one’s attitude now, will pay dividends when they are grown-up, living alone and willing to cook healthily for themselves. Even in the short-term there are benefits beyond improved overall development such as being calm and improved social skills. I am also talking to all family members here, not just the primary caregiver.
There are many ways to promote food acceptance among fussy eaters and even those children who eat well. Mothers are recommended to eat a variety of food during their pregnancy and then expose their child to a variety of food during breastfeeding as well.
Please don't refer to your child's fussy habits as such, don't complain about it to other people in front of them. Avoid labeling them (even apart from their food habits). Try to always praise them in front of others and you will see miracles. "My son loves cauliflower", "My daughter chews well", etc.
Don’t ban / forbid junk food immediately. Stop buying processed foods ASAP and cut down eating out but do so without drawing attention to that fact. Provide healthy, balanced meals and snacks instead (be ready with recipes and ingredients). Obviously introduce new foods only when they are well.
Children may exhibit normal exploratory behaviours with new foods such as touching, smelling, playing, putting foods in their mouth, and then spitting them out before they are willing to taste and swallow various foods. This can be encouraged. If a child does not readily choose fruits or vegetables for example, you can increase the likelihood of acceptance by just offering a bite or two and showing appreciation. If they ask for a little more, offer without comment. Most parents / caregivers don’t know that children need to be exposed to a certain food at least 8 – 15 times before they accept it.
If you make faces while eating your greens, don’t expect your child to love them. Eat your veggies (and all other foods) cheerfully and maintain a pleasant atmosphere while eating, even if it is only your child who is eating. They watch everyone at the table so it is important for everyone at home to be positive role-models.
Explore new flavours as a family – expose your children to a variety of colours, flavours and textures in food. Try buying vegetables you don’t know how to cook and look up recipes, for example. Introduce one new food at a time for young children.
Don’t offer food until your child is ready for it. If s/he just had a snack, they are not ready and mealtime might become a battle. On the other hand, don’t wait until they are starving either as they are more likely to ask for unhealthy foods that they crave. Use flavouring agents like lemon, coriander (and other herbs) and spices (eg. Garam Masala) that your child already likes in dishes containing new or disliked food.
If you’ve always made a repetitive, separate meal with little variety for your fussy eater, you need to stop. If your child is older, explain how difficult it is, etc. For your young toddler, fix a definite date in the near future to stop and start to put all these suggestions into practice right now.
So, here’s the clincher…you have to SELL the meal. Get your child involved in the making of his meal and actually point out why we eat food (to grow big and strong), what are the benefits of eating ____ (for our whole body and definitely not our tongue where food stays for less than a minute) and how a particular ingredient (like sprouts) contributes so many nutrients (many minerals, vitamin C, plant enzymes, etc.) vital for well- being. Don’t overdo / fake it – your kid is pretty smart.
This works for even toddlers still developing language but do put it as simply as possible with just a few focus points. I told my 3.9 yr old (not a fussy eater), recently who does not really relish pineapple that it would help his cough, get rid of the bad bacteria and parasites in his gut and help him poop easily. I got him to eat a cupful.
Bottom-line, keep the faith, your child CAN change. She just needs you to facilitate this. If your efforts don’t bear fruit, relax…tomorrow is another day. Watch out for your own irritability cues (hunger, sleep, exhausted at the end of the day, being fed up). You will reap the benefits of this relaxed parenting approach in all areas of your relationship with your child. You will probably see how much the single issue of not eating well was affecting your entire relationship with him.