Do you spend more time begging your child to eat than enjoying the meal yourself?
If you answered “yes” to these questions then, sadly, you are not alone. Studies show that 1 in 5 preschool aged children is a picky eater. The good news is that most children outgrow picky eating by age 4 or 5, but some just never outgrow it, carrying these same eating habits into adulthood. In fact, studies find that most of the eating habits we have as adults are actually developed during childhood. That’s why it is so important for parents to help children create healthy eating habits early.
Now, to be sure, some children may actually have a phobia about certain foods that requires a doctor’s care. But this is rare. For the vast majority of children, picky eating is just a habit, and habits can be changed. Even more important for parents, picky eating may not be entirely about the food. That’s more good news, because if we can discover the underlying causes of the picky eating behavior, then those causes can be addressed and new habits formed. Helping your child learn to eat a wide variety of healthy foods early in life will help them be healthy as they become adults.
To encourage your child to eat a wider variety of healthy foods, it is helpful to understand just why they are a picky eater. Researchers generally put picky eaters into one or more of the following groups, based on the reason(s) for their habits. First, determine which group your picky eater fits into, and then address that issue. Note that some children may exhibit characteristics of more than one group at different times, so your approach should adjust accordingly. Here are the main groups, along with the best approach for parents to follow:
Exerting Authority. If the child goes into a rage when they are served certain foods, then they may just be exerting their authority. We’ve all heard (and maybe already experienced) the “terrible twos”. This is the age at which children are exploring their environment and beginning to test limits. Eating is another area of their environment, so it is natural that children begin to “test” their eating limits. Picky habits often start around this same time, around 2 years old. Children simply refuse to eat certain foods in order to control their world. In these cases, it’s not about the food at all; it’s simply a way to exert control over an important part of their environment. The best approach is here is act as a role model. Exhibit the behaviors that you want your children to have. If you want them to eat their peas, for example, then you should let them see you eating yours. Children may not listen to their parents, but they do observe and often imitate what their parent do.
Inexperienced Chewers. If the child gags on new foods, they may just have difficulty chewing. We sometimes forget that even the simple act of chewing – something we take for granted every day – is new to children. Of course chewing is innate, but its finer points are learned. They may have had trouble in the past chewing something that was stringy or leathery, or they may have tried to put too much food in their mouth at one time and gaged. In either case, they may now associate that bad experience with all chewable food. In these cases, like the previous ones, this is not about the food at all. The best thing to do with picky eaters in this group is to go back to more easily chewable foods, and then introduce chewing again, but more slowly this time. Give children an opportunity to build chewing skills slowly and don’t push them.
Over-snacking. If the child pushes food around their plate, but doesn’t eat, then they may just not be hungry. This often happens when children eat or drink too much prior to meals. One habit that I was taught as a child is to “clean my plate.” Unfortunately, this approach may lead to unhealthy eating habits later in life. If your child isn’t hungry, then “forcing” them to eat is really teaching them to overeat, and that’s not good. Again, with previous cases, it’s not about the food. Instead, it’s about teaching children to listen to what their body is telling them and act accordingly. The better approach for this group is to cut back on pre-meal snacks in the future, so that they are truly hungry when they come to the table.
Checking Out. Sometimes children get pickier when other family members argue. This is a way to simply exit an unpleasant situation. They may use their food choices as a way to leave the “real” world where there is conflict and enter a “fantasy” world of their own design, where they make all the “rules.” In some ways, this is an offshoot of the Exerting Authority group discussed earlier. Since they can’t exert any control over what other members of their family does and they don’t want to be part of the negative behavior they see around them, they “control” what they eat. The solution for this group is simple – it may not be easy, but it is simple. Create a pleasant environment around mealtime so that kids look forward to it rather than dreading it. One way to start is to focus attention on the kids and their accomplishments rather than the adults. A question that we use to start conversations in our house is, “What interesting questions did you ask today?”
Fear of the Unknown. Many children (and adults for that matter) shy away from foods they aren’t familiar with. Often times they use the general “I don’t like that” when they really mean “I’m not familiar with that and I don’t know how it’s going to taste.” This reaction is perfectly normal, and some may even say it was developed thousands of years ago. After all, when our ancestors ventured out into the jungle or forest and ate unknown foods, they were taking a huge risk. So rejection of unknown foods may simply be natural. The easiest way to deal with this is to be a role model and eat it yourself. How can you expect your children to eat something you’re not willing to eat yourself? As discussed earlier, kids observe everything you do and model your behavior, so reassure them that the food in question tastes good and let them see you eating it. They may still not want to try it, but the seed will have been planted. Try the same food again at a later date and again if needed. Studies show that some children must be exposed to a food 6-10 times before they are willing to try it, so be patient.