Part I of this topic gave parents information and tips on how to cultivate healthy eating habits in children.  In this second part, we discuss ‘picky’ eating and provide some strategies to deal with them.

What is ‘picky’ eating?

Selective or picky eating is when a child avoids eating certain food or eats only the same food all the time.  Parents can become very frustrated and even stressed when they have to deal with picky eaters.  Some children may be happy eaters until they move into their toddler years and then start being picky.  Research studies show that most often picky eating is a phase that a child goes through and often disappears around the age of 6.  A child’s pre-disposition to eating, combined with the parents’ reaction, will determine if this phase passes easily or not. There are various reasons why your child may be refusing to eat certain food and children may not yet be able to articulate the reasons for doing so.

A few reasons why your child might be refusing:

  • Does not like the taste of food – As simple as it may seem, children do have preferences like adults. Some children may just dislike certain tastes such as bitter or sour.  Recognise that as children grow, they will have favourite food preferences as do adults.
  • Children have more taste buds than adults do. Some children who are hypersensitive to sensory experiences find it difficult to try new food with strong smell or those that have a different texture or taste.
  • Not hungry – After the growth spurt of the infant years, children may have slightly lower levels of appetite. There are probably days when your child eats well and other days when they are just not hungry.  Snacking in between meals may also be another reason for loss of appetite.
  • Food looks uninteresting – As adults, we prefer a variety of food which is presented in an appealing manner. If children are offered the same type of food every day, they may tend to dislike it.  Make sure they are not bored with the food that is being offered. Even if a child likes certain food and wants to eat it all the time, parents should always encourage them to try different food.
  • New food – Children take time to get accustomed to new food. With young children, introduce new foods gradually.
  • A child’s personality and temperament seems to determine to some extent their eating habits. Some children tend to be cautious when trying anything new including food where as some others are risk-takers who try new things readily including food.
  • Children model what their parents or caregivers do. If the significant adults are picky eaters themselves, then the children may not be exposed to the different tastes, smells and textures mentioned earlier on.  It will also be harder to convince children to eat food that the adults dislike.
  • As mentioned in Part I of this topic, children should never be force-fed. Force-feeding can create anxiety in children around food which leads to loss of appetite.  Mealtimes should be relaxed and enjoyable.  They provide great opportunities for busy family members to come together and enjoy companionship.

Dealing with picky eaters

  • Children who eat small portions in one sitting may be given 5 smaller meals instead of 3 full meals. Some children are likely to feel overwhelmed at the sight of large portions of food.  Serve or pack small portions that the child can finish so that they can feel a sense of accomplishment.
  • Research show that children need to try a new food item up to ten times or more before they accept it. So keep on introducing it until they decide to try.  However, it is not a good idea to force them to try.
  • Refrain from cooking separate meals for your child every time he or she refuses to eat what you have cooked. This only reinforces picky eating.  Keep offering them healthy food until they are ready to try.
  • Focus on the healthy food items that your child likes to eat and have them readily available.
  • Keep to a daily routine of meal and snack times. Limit snacks and drinks in between meals if your child does not feel hungry during mealtimes.
  • Children model what adults do. Parents should be role models and make healthy choices themselves.  Always talk about food in a positive way.  Parents should avoid over eating, extreme dieting or complaining about their body weight.  If your child refuses a food item, instead of forcing them to try, show them how you enjoy eating it.  Share with them how beneficial the food is, for example, gives them strength to play, prevents them from falling ill.  This may prompt them to try it as well.
  • The importance of having family mealtimes were discussed in Part I of this topic. Children are more likely to try new food if they are introduced during family mealtimes as they see the other family members enjoying it.
  • Let children choose between two healthy options. For example, ‘Would you prefer tomatoes or carrots for dinner?’ Giving those choices help them to feel in control of the situation and are more likely to try the food they chose.
  • Give children age-appropriate responsibilities such as making a shopping list, shopping for ingredients and making simple meals. Children will more readily try new food when they are involved in preparing them.  Expose children to different types of textures and smells when they are just beginning to eat solids.  Even if they refuse to eat them, let them touch, feel, smell and lick it in a relaxed environment.
  • Try to present food in fun, creative and appealing ways. Make food colourful by including coloured vegetables and fruit.  Cut them up in different shapes and serve with their favourite dip or sauce to make it exciting (Do note the high content of sugar and salt in ketchup).
  • Food should never be used as a reward, punishment or a way of showing your love. Do not send a child to bed without dinner as a punishment or use sweets or desserts as rewards for good behaviour.  This will create an unhealthy association with food.
  • If your child is already addicted to unhealthy food, it is recommended that they gradually be weaned off them instead of banning them completely.
  • If you suspect that your child is not getting the necessary nutrients or they are not growing and developing properly, consult a paediatrician.

Obesity in children

If you notice that your child is not eating as much as they used to, it is important to observe the child instead to trying to force-feed them.  Let the child learn to identify hunger and exercise some reasonable choices.  Overfeeding is one reason for childhood obesity.

The most common causes of obesity in children are inactivity and unhealthy eating habits.  Some children become overweight due to genetic factors or medical condition. Children who are obese should never be put on a diet without consulting a doctor.  Please check our parent portal post, ‘Outdoor Play and Children’s Well-being (Part I) to get more information on the benefits of outdoor play.  Part II of the topic gives suggestions on play areas in Singapore.

Concluding comments

Picky eating is common.  Most often picky eating is a phase that the children go through.  Though frustrating, parents should remember to remain calm and encourage fussy eaters to try something rather than pushing them to eat.  Avoid making a big issue if a child suddenly decides to eat less or reject certain food.  Like tantrums, placing emphasis on a situation inflames it.  A child may decide that it is a way of getting attention and hence continue to fuss about food.  This is to be avoided.

As children become older, try to explain that it is not a good idea to waste food.  There is much hunger in the world and children over time need to realise that it is morally wrong to waste large amounts of food left over from mealtimes.

Copyright © Marjory Ebbeck and Sheela Warrier 2017

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