Coping with fussy eaters

Clinical psychologist Dr Amy Bailey offers advice for dealing with food refusal Discuss this article

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When kids refuse to eat, mealtimes can become a battleground. Clinical psychologist Dr Amy Bailey offers advice for dealing with food refusal.

What causes children to be picky eaters in the first place? And what can parents do to ensure their kids develop well- rounded tastes?
Many factors shape a child’s eating patterns including exposure to a variety of food and flavours, role modelling, the social context of eating and parent interactions during mealtimes, as well as a child’s developmental stage. The environment we create around eating and mealtimes determines our children’s food associations. A positive experience will more likely result in a positive relationship with food, while mealtime battles that create anxiety for a child will associate food with negative feelings and the child may become a picky eater. Sometimes what appears as ‘pickiness’ may not be behavioural. Problems such as weight loss, chewing and swallowing difficulty, long mealtimes, not being able to eat independently, sensitivity to food consistencies and food group refusal may require the attention of a qualified paediatric dysphagia (eating and drinking) specialist.

Meal times can take forever – and be really distressing. How can you make them less painful for both parents and kids?

Mealtime challenges often begin during the pre-school years, when toddlers are suddenly able to do many things for themselves and realise they have choices. One of the major developmental tasks for toddlers is to develop autonomy and master some control over their world.

The need for control is what drives a toddler to suddenly decide not to like something that they happily ate yesterday! It is important that we develop positive and effective feeding practices during this time to ensure that we allow our child to manage this need for control whilst at the same time avoiding mealtime battles (such as providing limited choices, accepting when a child indicates they are full, avoiding bribery and forced feeding).

How can you encourage children to ‘like’ vegetables more?
Help children learn about the food chain and where vegetables come from. Get them involved in the process of choosing the vegetables, cooking them, and cutting them into fun shapes to make designs on the plate. Recent research has also shown that genetics play a role in the taste of certain vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprout, and cabbage. The so-called ‘bitter gene’ is inherited from both parents, and results in a neutral, somewhat heightened, or significantly heightened sensitivity to the taste of these vegetables. Exposure outside of the ‘bitter gene’ group may be helpful for children who dislike these specific vegetables. Adding favorite toppings, such as cheese, has also proven effective for many children.

Do kids grow out of being picky eaters? If so, at what age?
Children may be most open to new textures and tastes before age two, narrow their preferences during pre-school, and expand again during primary school. It is important that we do not unconsciously maintain a phase by not allowing the child opportunity to try new foods or reintroduce foods they have previously rejected. Repeated exposure is important as fear of new food is common and decreases with age. Picky eaters will greatly benefit from parents who remain positive and avoid negative and coercive parenting practices regarding food. In addition, positive mealtime experiences are important for your child to avoid food becoming associated with anxiety, which could lead to more significant eating disorders in the future.

If a child is going through a particularly picky stage (only eating one type of food, like plain pasta with butter) how can you ensure they get all the nutrients they need?
Taking nutritional supplements may not be enough, as many vitamins and minerals are blocked or absorbed by the foods they are eaten with. Try blending fruits in smoothies and adding hidden blended vegetables in food. Mashed vegetables may be better received at a young age than those that are boiled and presented whole on the child’s plate. If a child is under weight, ensure sufficient calories by adding creams and butter to a meal. Parents concerned about their child’s eating behaviour can consult a dysphagia specialist.

What kinds of tricks can you use to encourage them to widen their tastes?
Your child will be more likely to try new foods when presented together with familiar and favoured ones. Introduce new foods gradually to avoid overwhelming their senses. Encourage your children by communicating positively about the foods you eat together as a family. Give your children the opportunity to watch and learn from you. Your child may even be willing to try something new from your plate, while hesitating to eat the same item from their own. Add creativity to meals, including cutlery, cups and plates with favorite characters and colours. Allow children to help buy, prepare and cook meals so they can experience the food process. Encourage food play and messy eating within reason to widen a child’s experience and pleasure with different textures. Most importantly, be patient and keep trying new things.

By Time Out Bahrain staff
Time Out Bahrain,

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