We all have preferences about the types of food we like to eat and children do too. It is normal for children to prefer certain foods and to be hesitant about trying new foods.
When does picky eating become a problem?
Picky eating becomes a concern when it impacts health or social interaction. For example, not eating enough food to maintain a healthy body weight, not eating foods that provide necessary nutrients, or not being able to eat in unfamiliar settings. Picky eaters may become very anxious when presented with new foods. They might cry or have a tantrum.
What causes picky eating?
- At around 2 years old children start to eat less because growth starts to slow down.
- Toddlers are learning to be independent and one way of demonstrating this is choosing the foods they will eat.
- A child may have difficulty with chewing and swallowing.
- Some children are naturally more sensitive to taste, smell, and texture.
- Young children are still developing their food preferences. It can take up to 10 separate attempts at eating a new food for a child to decide if they like it or not.
- Children may develop picky eating habits by watching their parents’ or family members’ selective eating habits.
- Refusing food may be a way for the child to get attention from a parent or caregiver.
Having a child who is a picky eater can be stressful for the whole family. Below are some strategies that parents and caregivers can use to help children eat a wider variety of foods.
Strategies to support healthy eating
Involve children in meal planning and preparation
Involve your child in making decisions about what meals the family will have. Include your child in grocery shopping and preparing the meal. For example, they can mix or measure ingredients, wash fruits or vegetables, or serve food onto plates.
Limit drinks close to meals
Too much milk or juice could reduce your child’s appetite. Wait until after meals to serve these types of drinks.
Honour your child’s choices
Respect that your child can choose what they eat and how much they eat. If your child chooses not to eat, allow them to make that choice. As a parent or caregiver, your role is to ensure that a variety of healthy foods are offered. Do not force your child to eat. Sometimes it can be beneficial to provide choices. For example, asking your child if they would rather have broccoli or carrot with their meal.
Try to remove distractions such as TV, tablets, and toys during mealtimes.
Allow your child to play with food
Allow children to interact with their food by smelling, touching or playing with it. If a child learns to be comfortable touching a food, they may be more comfortable tasting it. Cutting food into shapes or making designs with food can make food more appealing to children.
Be a role model
Children learn through observation. Set an example by eating a variety of healthy foods yourself.
Develop a mealtime routine
- Schedule 3 meals and 2-3 snacks at around the same time every day. Try to avoid giving your child snacks in between these scheduled times.
- Before a meal give your child a 10-15 minute warning so they can transition into mealtime.
- Set up a routine around meals. For example, before every meal have your child wash their hands and set the table.
Use passive language
Avoid pressuring your child to eat using scolding, punishments, or bribes and don’t use food as a reward. Instead use positive feedback, praise, and encouragement to promote healthy eating habits.
Make mealtime a positive experience
Creating a positive atmosphere at mealtime can help children develop healthy attitudes towards eating. Try to eat together as a family when possible. Keep mealtimes enjoyable and relaxed by limiting strict rules around table behaviours and embracing that learning to eat can be messy.
Talk about food
Talk to your child about food. Some children may be unable to guess what a new food will taste like just by looking at it. Talking about a new food’s taste, texture, and sound can help children feel more comfortable trying it. Focus on using objective words to describe the food (e.g., sweet, crunchy) rather than words like yummy or good.
Most children will eat to meet their nutritional needs. If your child is healthy and is maintaining a healthy body weight it is okay to let them eat more of their preferred foods. It is okay if your child does not eat all 3 food groups at every meal, as long as there is variety in their diet over time. If you are worried that your child’s picky eating is impacting their health, you can contact your family physician.
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