Posted on August 15 2018
Article by Elena Razmpoosh, RD
Photos by Madison Gould
Are you frustrated about how your child eats? Do you find yourself using games, pressure or rewards to get your child to eat certain foods or to eat less or more of something? Mealtimes can indeed be very frustrating and stressful for many parents, especially if you find yourself with a picky eater at the table. Luckily there are lots of tips and tricks that parents can use, not only to avoid picky eating but also to resolve eating issues that already exist.
1. Set your expectations right! Keep in mind that it is very normal for children to be sensitive to various tastes, textures, and smell. This sensitivity is thought to be an evolutionary protective mechanism in children to protect them from potential poisonous foods (which often tend to be bitter foods in nature).
Genetics can also play a role and predispose some of us to taste bitter compounds (think broccoli, cauliflower, kale, etc.) more than others. Keep in mind though that food acceptance is built over time (given a supportive environment) and children can learn to like foods with repetitive exposure (research suggests up to 12 times or more)
Eating a food one time and not another time is also a very typical behavior in children. While this can be very frustrating for parents, it is very important to respect your child’s changing preferences and avoid pressure to get them to eat certain foods. Pressure takes harmony and joy of out eating and does not teach your child how to become a competent eater in the future.
2. Start as early as possible to expose your child to different kinds of foods. At around two years of age, children undergo a developmental phase that is known as neophobia - the fear of something new. Many parents notice around the second birthday that their child starts to become pickier at the dinner table. During this developmental phase, feeding dynamics can have great impact on your child’s future eating habits. Often times, parents worry and panic when their usual good eater starts rejecting food. However, it is especially important during this time to continue offering a variety of foods, even when rejected. While it may seem easier to just offer “child-friendly” foods, keep in mind that short-order cooking will make things more complicated later down the road for both you and your child. Try to continue offering a variety of foods, even if your child chooses not to eat them. Your child can only learn to like various foods if they are offered at the dinner table.
3. Pay attention to your language around food and eating. Even though you might think you are helping your child, talking about his food likes and dislikes in front of him confirms his current food choices and makes him less likely to try new foods. Try teaching your child how to politely reject food. Keep in mind that labeling your child as a picky eater can be more harming than helpful. While it might seem like a small detail, labeling can really shape your child’s identity and limit how they see themselves.
4. Don’t mix up responsibilities! Ellyn Satter, a well-respected dietitian and therapist who specializes in child nutrition, suggests that parents and children each have different responsibilities that shouldn’t be mixed up. Satter’s division of responsibility principle suggests that parents have the responsibility of deciding WHAT foods are being served, WHEN food is offered and WHERE it is offered. Children on the other hand are responsible for HOW much they choose to eat of the food that is being offered (as little or as much as they like) and WHETHER they want to eat or not.
This principle can go somewhat against our primary parental instinct and our style of parenting can certainly play a big role in how easy or difficult it may be to implement this division of responsibility. Very typical for parents is to take over the child’s responsibility by telling her to eat more or less of something or to eat one food and not another. On the flip side, asking your child what she wants for dinner, means that you are handing over your responsibility of WHAT foods are being served.
Keep in mind that you can certainly give your child a voice but not THE voice when choosing food. Children are not developmentally ready to make nutritionally appropriate food choices so we cannot yet expect our children to take on this responsibility. When you choose WHAT will be served for a meal, always add a few “safe” foods (e.g. bread, raw veggies, fruit, etc.) as a side dish so your child can defer to those in case she doesn’t feel like having the meal that you are serving. This approach allows you to be considerate without catering to your child.
5. When to feed? Your child is more likely to behave better at the dinner table and try new foods when she is hungry for mealtimes but not too hungry that she throws tantrums. Structured meal and snack times (most kids need 3 meals and 1-2 snacks per day) are therefore really important. Avoid grazing in between snacks and meals. Grazing also includes any drinks except water. Children can easily fill up on caloric drinks (e.g. milk). If you allow your child to constantly snack on something in between meals, your child will learn to expect food any time and is less likely to eat well during mealtimes.
During the toddler years, your child is also at a high risk for learning to eat for emotional reasons. They are learning to differentiate between their feelings and their bodily sensations, whether they are hungry, angry, or tired. They are prone to get upset but keep in mind that feeding your child to quell the riot can backfire. Instead, try to calm him down by giving hugs, attentions or a nap.
6. Focus on family meals. Contrary to popular belief, family meals are not about the picture perfect meal made from scratch, it is about sitting down together, facing each other and sharing the same food, no matter what you eat and turn off the TV and other electronics. Research shows that young children benefit from family meals by having higher nutrient intakes, lower risk of eating disorders and obesity and tend to do better at school. Teens who have frequent family meals tend to have better relationships with their parents, experience less stress, and are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol.
7. Avoid pressure at all costs. You may have already noticed this for yourself during mealtimes, when you use pressure to try to get your child to eat more, it will make her eat less. Trying to get her eat less of a certain food, will make her eat more. Trying to get her to eat certain foods, will make her avoid them. Also keep in mind that pressure can often be very subtle. Parents are often surprised that even approaches that appear well intended, can put a lot of pressure on your child to eat the way YOU want them to eat. Encouraging, enticing, persuading, applauding, rewarding for eating or even tasting food are all different ways of putting pressure on your child. Instead of using pressure, allow your child slowly and at their own pace to learn to like new foods that are being served at the family table.
8. Trust your child! Most importantly, trust that your child wants to learn to eat like the adults in the house. They are capable of learning and developing new food preferences. Trust will allow your child to grow into a competent eater so that he will know how to make healthy food choices even when you are not around.
For more information, visit: https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/