How to deal with a Picky Eater

Written by Sudhir D'Souza on July 30, 2013

‘He is such a picky eater, doctor, I am worried…’

This is a common refrain is the most common concern of parents with toddlers and other children.  As one of the original picky eaters, a fact  of which my parents always reminded me, I feel for both the children and their parents. Nutrition is a sore topic for both.  The child often feels forced to eat and the parent frustrated and powerless to address a major concern.  Like most issues between children and their parents, the picky eater is a misunderstanding between parental expectations (and often those of extended family) and normal growth, childhood behaviour and development.

Your child does not eat ‘enough’ because she has had ‘enough’

child does not want to eat - dealing with a picky eater

Parents are concerned about their child getting enough from the day they are born. However, the most common times for heightened concern are in children around 5-7 months of age, when they are transitioning to solids and when they are just over 1 year of age. Why?

  • Children grow the fastest from birth to 6 months of age.  At 6 months of age, children will adjust their rate of growth to reflect their genetic predisposition.  Children whose parents were always thin as children, tend to decrease the rate at which they put on weight and may become slender (or more so).
  • The rate of growth again changes at around 1 year of age. The change in appetite may be alarming even to physicians, who may start a failure to thrive work-up. Neither the parent nor the physician should become overly concerned initially. Working up for failure to thrive a previously well child, who has crossed a percentile or two is more often negative than positive.
  • The principal reason for a change in a child’s appetite is most often physiologic, reflecting the child’s genetic disposition. Stepping back and getting a good idea of intake, family and personal medical histories are often very informative.
  • If you are worried that your child is not eating enough of the right things, keep a food diary over about a week and then bring it with your child to see his/her physician.  Daily intakes often lead to a misunderstanding of a child’s total nutrition, especially in toddlers who are notorious for eating one or two foods for days.

Do not push your child to eat more

The knee-jerk response to a perception of poor intake is to push the child to eat more or specifically push larger quantities of food that he or she ‘likes’. However, pushing your child to eat more is wrong on a number of fronts.

  • Pushing foods on a child, when they declare satiety (they are full) or do not wish to eat creates an unnecessary battle.
  • It removes from the child control of their appetite. Not respecting the child’s appetite often goes along with a false sense of portion size. This is an alarming trend and may account in part for our societal overeating.
  • More importantly, catering to the wants as opposed to the needs of the child simply reinforces bad eating habits.
  • Strategies such as encouraging positive intake by using another favourite food as a bribe are not effective. The act of eating something is not the stated the goal. Eating a balanced diet is.
  • Children develop a natural preference for the foods they enjoy the most and may also binge on certain type of foods for days to weeks. Accommodating these preferences often leads to more complications. Take for example the milk-fed baby. We routinely see children over age of 1 who drink a lot of whole milk in a day because ‘ he/she likes it and is really picky’.  This creates a vicious cycle where the child is full on milk and then does not eat, perpetuating the picky myth. These children invariably come in anemic and ill.

Good eating habits are Modeled and Learned

Family Eating Together - Dealing with a Picky Eater

There are many tips to giving your child healthy eating habits.

Children learn by observation and imitation. If you eat poorly, the chances are so will your children. The first step for parents who are worried about their child’s nutrition is to look at their own eating habits. Yes, I know it is tough to change, but how can you ask the child who mimics or models your behavior in so many ways to be better than you?  Here are a few tips.

  • Have regular family meals that include your child from the moment they express interest in solid foodsaround 4-6 months. All the food guides will now tell you to be exclusive to breast or formula for 6 months.  There is a school of thought that you may feed a child when they demonstrate good head control and start expressing interest. I believe that having your child sit with you for regular meals starts as soon as the child can sit. They do not have to eat with you as an infant, but the idea or mealtime may still be modeled.
  • Persevere! Nothing worth doing is going to easy.  Being picky is a declaration of independence! Most children will need to be exposed to food multiple time before they accept it as part of their diet.
  • Most children tend to be grazers, who will sample a bit here and there.  Drop your expectations by serving smaller portions. Profit by not overwhelming your child, affording them the opportunity to independently ask for more.
  • Limit beverages. Picky eaters and others often fill up on liquids.  Milk is a big culprit. Allow for milk and water in small portions with or at the end of meal. Juices are provide generally useless calories in children.
  • Cook and eat at home to get your kids involved in the choice and preparation of the family’s meal. This is one way to overcome a child’s distrust of a food.
  • Cooking at home with your child can also make the process of eating new challenge and fun.
  • Try new shapes, sizes and textures.
  • Separate parts of the meal into their own compartments. Children love patterns and games.  (As an aside, I apparently only ate at my grandmother’s house because she always separated individual dishes into their own compartments or laid my food out in fun patterns.)
  • Whereas having regular mealtimes is good, remember that children may eat 5-6 small meals in a day. I will intentionally not call these snacks because it suggests they can have ‘snack’ food, which in our society and in most homes are prepared and purchased foods like cookies or the like. I MEAN SMALL MEALS of healthy food options.
  • Make a decision early about the quality of food in your home.  If your house promotes chips and cookies as snacks, expect that your children are not going to go for fruit, vegetables and whole grains.  If you have to ‘snack’, limit them to 2 a day of choice foods and not junk!

Summary of How to deal with a Picky Eater

If we are what we eat, I submit that our children’s eating habits are what they see their parents consume. Much like a child’s behaviour reflects what he sees in his parents. To be successful in feeding your child, you need to concentrate on a few things.

  • Keep things simple.
  • Cook at home with your children.
  • Avoid making food a battle. Try to make it an exercise in having fun!

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Posted Under: Family Nutrition, Feeding Infants & Toddler, Fussy baby, Infant & Toddler Care, Parenting

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