One of my major source of referrals are for toddlers and pre-schoolers that are picky eaters. Over the last three years I have heard the tails of parents who try everything to get their child to eat. At the end of the day, they are all just concerned that their peanuts are not getting enough nutrients to grow healthy.
However, sometimes this concern is what makes the problem worst. Our anxiety as parents will at times interfere with our ability to think clearly about certain situations. And with food in particular and making sure your child is not falling behind on their growth chart, it might be tempting to give in and become our child’s personal chef, and just give them anything that they will eat. This then ends up adding to the problem, because now your child knows that if he “starves” himself just enough, he will be able to eat what he wants. Does anyone recognize this issue?
So there are a couple of core concepts that I would like to share. When I started working in Pediatrics I heard one of the doctors mention a study that showed:
“You need to try a certain food at least 12 times, before you know if you like it or not”
If you think about yourself I am pretty sure that you will remember some foods that you did not like as a child and you now love as an adult. I have plenty of examples in my life: brussel sprouts, prosciutto, spinach etc. And some that I still do not like: certain cheeses, gamey meats, etc. So the key here is just trying! No, you do not have to eat the whole thing, but you have to take a bite and try! Something that I have tried to get this process going is what I called a “Food Bingo”. I will simply make a chart and add pictures of foods that the child should try eating (and add a couple you know that they will try just to get them motivated) and then give the child a sticker for each new food he or she tries (emphasis on tries… meaning just a bite is ok – as long as he/she does not spit it out). Then pick how you want to do the reward system. If the child is extremely picky, you may want to give a reward for each line completed. If not too picky, a reward for each table completed. Choose a small reward like letting the child pick an activity for the weekend or a small prize (remember, you don’t necessarily need to spend money on this). Here is an example:
The other wise concept I heard from a Pediatrician is that “children will eat when they are hungry”. This speaks again to our own anxiety if a child is eating or not. If they do not want to have dinner perhaps you can offer it again in 2 hours. And if they do not eat then, they will probably eat something at breakfast. If you are worried about their weight gain, some doctors will be more than happy do weight checks while you are working on these issues (and reassuring you that he is not falling off the charts).
Another important concept is that children’s growth spurts are not a regular line that continuously increases. It’s more a stable line with sudden peaks. Therefore, it is normal to have a child that does not have a huge appetite for some time and then suddenly (during those growth spurts) will be hungrier and eat more. If concerned, you should always talk to your pediatrician. One thing I would be careful about are those supplements that you widely see on TV now. Yes, they do have nutrients your child needs, however, they have a great flavor that your child will love. So, I have seen kids that have a really hard time stopping those drinks and eating their foods, because the taste is just something they like.
For some tips for your picky eater, check the list below:
1. No snacks before dinner for all household members.
2. Set the dinner table ahead of time and involve your child.
3. Set the tone and energetically announce that it is dinner time.
4. Set a routine – ask child to turn off TV, wash his/her hands and everyone should sit at the table together (if your child struggles with transitions, a picture sticker chart can also be helpful for this routine).
5. Child should stay at the table, even if he/she does not want to eat, until dinner time is over – otherwise, he/she gets to play (meaning he/she is being rewarded for not eating).
6. Avoid juice during dinner. It fills them up and then they actually won’t be hungry. You can offer juice at the end of the meal.
7. Avoid making mealtime a battlefield. Sometimes that attention contributes to the behavior. You show what the options are and you move on. You explained it already.
8. If you do want to give another option for a child that will not eat anything, I would wait until after dinner. In 1-2 hours you can give them a choice to eat what was for dinner or another choice. This should be the same for at least a whole week (so the child can get bored with it) and something that they will eat, but not a favorite food (something like a cheese sandwich or a soup).
9. If the child does not want any of those options, keep offering them throughout the evening. In the morning they will have something new to eat.
10. Be consistent! Kids pick up on our insecurities and will use them to their advantage. If they know you mean business, eventually they understand that no matter how much they cry for McDonald’s that they will not get it!
Oh, the battles of meal time! A classic for many parents and a challenge for kids and parents. If you truly think your child is not eating because they do not want to try these foods (or they know they can get something else), give these tips a try! Also, make sure to check if they are eating in other settings, like at childcare or family and friends’ houses. If you feel like your child’s appetite has decreased for other reasons, make sure to contact your doctor. They can check for other reasons that may make children not want to eat.
Don’t forget to follow on Facebook for daily updates! I will be posting/tweeting some resources for fun lunch and food ideas for children. Also, you can check my new Pinterest page and one of my Boards – Kids & Food.