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Toddlers are at a stage were they may start to become a picky eater, which can be normal as long as it doesn’t continue to be an issue later on down the road. For instance, during the 2nd and 3rd years of life, growing slows down, so their appetite is likely to change and become more erratic. Children may have develop strong (or even strange) food preferences during this time.
However, I was hoping beyond hope that my daughter would never become a picky eater even at this stage. So, here am I, writing a post about guidelines for helping a picky eater that was inspired by her. Here’s an example from the other morning:
Me: What do you want to eat for breakfast?
Me: (Fixes cereal) Here you go!
Toddler: I don’t want it.
Me: Then what do you want?
Toddler: A waffle
Me: Here you go!
Toddler: I don’t want it.
And to add to this, my daughter has this thing about only wanting to eat oatmeal, rice, and chicken nuggets. She will occasionally eat blueberries and watermelon, but it’s definitely a fight to get her to eat vegetables. Needless to say, I had to do some research on this to help come up with a solution.
What is picky eating, and what are some concerns about it?
Picky eating can be defined as the unwillingness to eat familiar and unfamiliar foods, which is a behavior that is observed very often in early childhood (Steinsbekk, Bonneville-Roussy, Fildes, & Wichstrom, 2017). Understandably, this can concern parents, as we want our children to get all of the nutrients that they need. And if picky eating does became an issue later on in life, it can contribute to nutrient deficiency, being underweight, behavioral problems, and symptoms of anxiety and depression. This is why it’s important to follow some guidelines for helping a picky eater overcome this.
This refers to how aware the child is to each of their senses (taste, touch, smell, pain, sound, sight). Those that are high in sensory sensitivity have stronger reactions to tastes and textures in regards to food than someone who is lower in sensory sensitivity. In addition, those who are high in sensory sensitivity are more likely to notice sensory events (from taste, vision, sound, etc.) and to respond to them more rapidly. In the study done by Steinsbekk and his colleagues, sensory sensitivity did predict picky eating. Thus, those who are high in sensory sensitivity are more likely to reject certain foods, potentially because it was overstimulating to them.
Parents who have more of a structuring style of parenting are those that teach and help the child, but also acknowledge the child’s autonomy. In addition, these parents are also high in warmth and responsiveness, but they also have high expectations in terms of their children eating a healthy diet. These parents are likely to offer disliked or unfamiliar foods in a gentle, yet firm way. So, they may just encourage them to try it. Studies have shown that parental structuring is associated with less picky eating in children.
When a child responds in a negative way to a particular food, the parent may respond with distress. Some parents are more likely to do this than others. Parental sensitivity can be defined as being aware of their child’s cues and responding appropriately to them. Generally, this is thought to be beneficial (it is associated with children being able to better regulate their emotions, for instance), but it can have come with some negative consequences. For example, if a child has a negative reaction to a particular food, a highly sensitive parent might respond by never offering that food again. This may, in turn, reduce the child’s exposure to a variety of foods.
Temperament can be considered the child’s traits. For example, one such trait known as emotionality (how emotionally reactive one is to a stimulus such as a particular food) was associated with picky eating. It may be that the child’s emotional temperament is associated with more difficult interactions between the child and parents. For example, the parents might put more pressure in their child to eat the food. This, in turn, could influence the mealtime atmosphere and the child’s eating behavior, in that this could lead to even more pickiness (Hafstad, Abebe, Torgersen, & Soest, 2013).
1.Encourage your child to taste tiny amounts of the food (such as a vegetable) 8 or 10 ten times over a few weeks, so the food becomes more familiar. Familiarity with a particular object usually results in contentment with it rather than contempt. So, try not to give up right away if a child doesn’t want to eat a food when you offer it a few times.
2.Encourage your child to help make the meal. Initially, my child wouldn’t even eat pancakes, as I was trying to get her to eat something besides oatmeal. However, one day she seemed very interested in trying to help me in the kitchen. So, at the time, I was making pancakes. I let her help with some of the things she could do such as stir the batter and help me flip the pancakes. Guess what? She ate the pancakes and even asked for more. The was probably the first time in a while, I got her to actually sit down at dinner time and eat the same thing that everyone else ate for dinner. Now, I have to try to get the same thing to happen with fruits and vegetables! 🙂
3.Model healthy eating. Children are sponges, so if you model healthy eating, they are eventually more likely to do the same.
4.Be careful about becoming a short order cook. I have fallen into this trap myself. So, I am sometimes making meals specifically for my daughter that I know she will eat, and then I cook something for my husband and I. This encourages picky eating, so I need to back away from this and encourage my daughter to eat what we eat at each meal.
5.Offer a nibble tray This allows your child to try a bunch of different foods and even some new foods! You put small amounts of different foods in each slot in an ice cube tray. If you don’t want to use an ice try, try a muffin tray instead. I may need to try this myself!
6.Make eating more fun, which may make it more likely your child will try new foods. For example, you can try these eating utensils:
Or turn eating into more of a game with this plate:
7.If your child is sensory sensitive in regards to eating food, take a look here for some great ideas!
8.This is the stage where toddlers are a bit possessive, so everything is theirs! I’ll be honest, sometimes I take advantage of that by telling my toddler that I am going to eat her broccoli if she doesn’t. Sometimes, this actually works, and she will eat it!
Be patient, as it will come. Toddlers are still figuring out their likes and dislikes, so their appetites will change a lot during this time. Make it fun, and be encouraging! Also, if a toddler decides that they don’t want to eat a certain food that day, say “That’s ok, let’s try again tomorrow.” As mentioned, it may take several presentations of a food before your child tries a new food.
Steinsbekk, S., Bonneville-Roussy, A., Fildes, A., Llewellyn, C. H., & Wichstrom, L. (2017). Child and parent predictors of picky eating from preschool to school age. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 14, 1-8.