Today’s expert is Jennifer House. She is a Registered Dietitian & mom of three from Calgary, Alberta. She owns First Step Nutrition and helps moms ensure their kids get the right nutrients so that they can stop worrying their child is going to be hangry or not get enough to eat!
Are you struggling to get your child to try new foods or eat their dinner? It is understandable that you are concerned if your kid refuses to eat multiple meals in a row, or is never willing to even touch a new food.
Maybe you’ve become a short-order cook, making separate meals. Or you’ve tried sneaking veggies into your kid’s food. And feel like you have to bribe, pressure or reward your child to try even to take one bite of dinner. All of this just leads to stress and years at the table for everyone.
Wouldn’t it be great to stop stressing about how much or what your kids eat at the table? Have more peaceful dinners, with no more tears or yelling at the dinner table? And for your kids to eat new foods without complaining about it!?
It’s totally possible! The first step is to figure out why your child is a picky eater.
Why is my child a picky eater?
1. Developmental Stage
Kids often become more selective about the food they eat around the age of 18 months to two years of age. This is also when they start to become mobile. There’s a theory that this fear of new food at one time was actually protective to little ones now crawling around sticking everything in their mouth!
This is also an age when little ones start to find their voice and exert their independence. They have control over few things – and one is if they eat or not! If you give them extra attention around eating, they’ll figure this out. And they like attention – whether it’s positive or negative.
Another factor in decreasing food intake is changing growth. After a year, growth rates slow down a lot. Take a look at a growth chart and you will see the levelling off in the rate of growth.
This is also often a time between ages one and two when toddlers can start eating less. And this is possibly just because they are responding to their decreased appetite. And listening to your appetite is a good thing!
It’s normal for toddlers and preschoolers to eat almost nothing for days in a row. And they often make up for it the following week by eating more than usual. While as adults our appetites are fairly consistent day-to-day, we can’t expect the same for our kids.
Were you or your partner a picky eater when you were little? Picky eating can be genetic. So essentially this is payback, from when you or your partner were little and all of the grief you gave your parents! But maybe this will give you a little more empathy towards what your child experiences when eating.
3. Physical Pain
If your child has reflux, constipation or allergies, they can experience eating with pain. And therefore, not want to eat! Luckily your doctor should be able to help you out with treatment, so eating can be more pleasant.
4. Nutrient Deficiencies
Another physical cause of low appetite can be low blood iron levels. This is a negative cycle because low iron causes low appetite and slow growth – and low appetite of course causes decreased food (and hence iron) intake.
Many picky eaters avoid meat, which is the easiest absorbed source of iron from our diet. And iron deficiency can lead to irreversible effects on the brain and body growth. So ask your doctor to test your child’s iron levels if you’re concerned.
5. Oral Motor Weakness
Another problem can be oral-motor issues. Or difficulty chewing and swallowing. If your baby had difficulty breastfeeding and has a tongue tie that wasn’t addressed, for example, they will often also have difficulty eating solids.
If you suspect they are having trouble chewing or swallowing normally, see an Occupational Therapist or Speech-Language Pathologist who specializes in infant feeding. They can do a proper assessment and provide exercises to strengthen oral motor skills.
6. Sensory Sensitivity
Maybe your child has increased or decreased ability to interpret the smell, taste, touch, sight or everything – including food. Signs this may be a problem include: your child didn’t mouth toys as a baby, brushing teeth is very difficult, they only like one texture or they don’t like getting dirty.
There are sensory exercises that can be done to decrease sensory sensitivity, such as playing with different textures (playdough, sand etc). And textures can also be gradually changed and increased in a method called “Sequential Oral Sensory” or SOS. Look for a practitioner (Occupational Therapist usually, or some dietitians like myself) that are trained in SOS.
How you deal with the picky eating
Do you follow the Division of Responsibility (DOR) in feeding at home?
You don’t if you let your child choose what to eat (by making them a special meal, or bringing out “back-up food” when they refuse dinner). If this is the case, your child will quickly learn that they never need to expand and try new foods.
And if you put any kind of pressure on your child to eat more (or less) than they would choose to on their own, this is another common hole in following the DOR. Check out my “3 reasons why the 3 bite rule sucks” video for more info on why pressure and food rules backfire.
The Division of Responsibility
Social worker and registered dietitian Ellyn Satter created the Division of Responsibility. It’s an excellent model for creating boundaries for feeding while trusting that your child knows his appetite best and letting him choose how much to eat.
If you are able to follow this concept not only will you be less likely to have a picky eater, but also you are raising a child who has a healthy relationship with food.
Here’s how it works:
Parent’s Feeding Responsibilities
When the child eats, where they eat and what they are offered to eat.
- When: By 1 year, most children should be offered three regular meals in addition to a few snacks daily. The snacks should not be constant nibbles throughout the day, but at scheduled times, or your child will not build up an appetite for the next meal.
- Where: All family members, including babies and toddlers, will benefit from eating at the table with the family. It is dangerous for your little one to be eating while running around, and the family meal creates a child that is happier and does better in life! Studies show adolescents who have regular family meals are less likely to do drugs or drink, they eat healthier and do better in school.
- What: You are responsible for the foods that your child is offered to eat. The “ideal” meal includes a good balance of foods and food groups. This is the role that often the child will attempt to take over, creating a parent who becomes a short-order cook!
Child’s Eating Responsibilities
How much and if they eat!
- How Much: Allow your child (no matter their age) to take the lead role in eating. If you are able to relax about how much your child eats, you do not set up power struggles with eating. This is the hardest thing for many parents to ‘let-go’ of. I assure you, it’s not your job to simply get your child to eat their broccoli. It’s your job to help them grow up with a healthy relationship with food.
- If: Especially with babies, toddlers & preschoolers, it’s very common for them to choose to eat nothing at all. Trust that your child is doing what his/her body is requesting. While kids do a good job of listening to their appetites, adults do not – and we want them to keep this skill as long as possible!
How to get rid of the Picky Eating Battles
The first step is to determine why your child is picky, and deal with any underlying causes if they exist. Your child won’t be able to successfully eat if they have sensory sensitivities, oral motor issues or low appetite from low iron, for example.
If you think there may be an underlying cause for your child’s picky eating, consult with your doctor, dietitian or an OT/SLP who specializes in feeding. Feeding Therapy might be helpful
And the Division of Responsibility in Feeding is a must for all households raising kids if we want to raise happy, healthy eaters as adults. And it has the bonus of decreasing picky eating battles!
If you want more support with making dinnertime more peaceful, implementing the DOR and other strategies to get your child the nutrition they need, watch my free training: “How to teach kids to try new foods without struggles at dinnertime”
Thank you, Jennifer House for this great article. Let us know in the comments below what your child’s favorite food is!