TOP TIPS FOR PICKY EATERS!
Do you have a picky eater? If so then read on! It can be really stressful if your child will only eat certain foods but with these top tips you can begin to gently encourage your little one to expand their palettes!
During my 30 something years working with children I have come across a fair few picky eaters! Everything from refusal to eat anything that isn't yellow or beige to picking tiny bits of onion out of a bolognaise sauce; from only eating pasta that is a certain shape to not even sitting at the table. Back in the day it was considered the norm to use pudding as a reward for eating all of the main and to coax children into eating " just one more bite". From my experience, non of that works, in-fact, it made it worse. So, what does work I hear you cry!?
I don't claim to be an expert in this area and I am not trained in nutrition but I am an expert in the early years and have many years of experience working in nurseries and as a nanny. I am going to share with you what I have found works when it comes to all of those picky eaters I have come across!
Why can children become choosy?
There are many reasons why children become picky eaters but what is really important to remember is that there is a lot going on when it comes to food for little one's. There is the taste, smell, texture and social aspect just to name a few. Another thing to bear in mind is that it is completely normal for little one's to become picky eaters. It’s a time they start testing their independence, boundaries and control. We cannot force them to eat so, to some extent they have the power over what they eat.
When they refuse to try something new it actually has a name; Neophobia (the fear of something new) is particularly associated with taste or food and it can be put down to evolution. It is an inbuilt sense to make us cautious of new foods, particularly bitter foods, until we learn they are safe. It has been found that we are born with a preference for sweet, highly calorific foods, this too goes back to our hunter gatherer ancestors. That is why we so often see children struggle when we introduce new vegetables as opposed to the more sweet tasting options.
My number one tip would be to relax around mealtimes. Children are like sponges and if they sense that you are stressed they will pick up on it. Try and let go of the fact that you have lovingly prepared a meal and they aren't touching it! Be! calm and they are far more likely to eat because they want to, not because you are telling them to. Children love attention so, if we are paying lots of attention around food and mealtimes they will continue with that behaviour. Relax, breathe and focus on something other than the food!
This is probably the main culprit when it comes to picky eating and it can become a viscous circle. A child who is constantly snacking will have a reduced appetite and therefore less likely to want to eat at mealtimes. You then worry that they aren't eating enough so offer more snacks, and so it goes on. Of course, all children are different and some can manage a substantial snack as well as a meal but when you notice that it is impacting on those mealtimes it is time to look at snacking.
Have a look at their snacking habits. What do they snack on and how often? Is it just one snack between each meal or is it more frequent and they are demanding snacks constantly throughout the day? Limit snacks to just one in the morning and one in the afternoon, say 10 am and 3pm. The more they snack the more they will want to snack, it becomes a habit. Young children are developing their impulse control and testing boundaries and independence so need you to set the limits as opposed to them having control over when they snack. In terms of what you offer try and stick to balanced and nutrient rich foods such as fruit and vegetables, oat or rice cakes with peanut butter, cheese, meat. The popular supermarket oat bars and rice cakes are filling buy have little nutritional value so try and steer clear of these. Keep a snack diary, it may surprise you!
Look at portion sizes. I know that when I'm faced with a huge meal I wonder how on earth I am going to get through it so imagine how your little one may be feeling! Large portions can overwhelm small children so reduce portion sizes, a quarter of your plate is plenty. A good rue of thumb is their clenched fist is about a potion size. Toddler plates and bowls can help control this and help make the plate look more appealing. If they don’t eat it all that’s fine, no pressure. Use descriptive praise and encouragement for what they have eaten. You could even try letting them serve themselves. As a nanny I have always let the children serve themselves and they have always been really sensible with their portion sizes, it's a great way to encourage self regulation and teaches them to listen to their bodies in terms of when they have had enough. Less is more!!
This is another really common mistake. It's natural to want to fill your little one up but by offering second choices we are sending out mixed messages and creating a habit. Soon your little one will learn that by refusing the first option a second, more preferable option will always be offered, this is intermittent reinforcement and creates a pattern in behaviours. It communicates to your little one that the first option wasn’t important and will teach them to hold out until ‘ something "better" comes along. You may find that they start refusing more and more foods until you are stuck with just a few that they will actually eat. It becomes a spiral so, without being punitive simply let them know that what they’re given is what they get. Acknowledge that it may not be their favourite and mention that tomorrow we can have xyz.
Exposure to new foods
Expose them to new foods. If you only offer the food you know they will eat it will escalate their fussiness. By exposing them to new food they will begin to see it as not new anymore and may even try it! Try offering foods that you know they will eat alongside foods they haven’t yet tried at mealtimes, keep going, one day they may even try it! Give lots of descriptive praise for when they do try something new.
This can have a huge impact on how children behave around food. I know how frustrating it is when you have lovingly prepared a meal and they hardly touch it but it's really important to stay calm. Hide your frustrations and don’t turn mealtimes into a battle of wills. Focus on all of the positive behaviours going on around the table and try not to draw attention to the picky eating. The more attention that is paid to the picky eating the worse it gets so ignore it so pay attention to all the good bits going on around the table instead, including siblings, this will teach them that they get attention for eating well. Being relaxed around picky eaters is key and try not to make any negative comments around mealtimes and what hasn't been eaten.
Children learn by what they see and if they see us and other family members eating new foods and enjoying mealtimes they are far more likely to do the same. Try and sit down at the table with your little ones and eat with them. Chat about the day, make it fun and engaging. It's all too easy to get treat mealtimes as a time to catch up with jobs or to have 5 minutes checking e mails on your phone but this isn't modelling the kind of behaviour you are ultimately wanting to encourage. Grab a cup of tea and sit with them, pull the highchair in close so the little one's feel part of it too and make it a fun and social time.
- Get them involved in meal planning and preparation
- Grow your own vegetables
- Make a shopping list and go shopping/ choose online
- Role play
- Picnics in the garden
- Arts and crafts involving food e.g vegetable printing, cutting and sticking magazine pictures
- Activities involving food e.g guess the food by the smell, taste, touch. Sorting by size, colour
I do hope you have found this useful. If you have any specific questions around picky eating then feel free to contact me.
If you have any questions or are struggling with your little one’s sleep or behaviour then please do get in contact with me. I offer a free discovery call where we can discuss ways in which I can help you.