Ensuring your child eats the right, nutritious foods to support their healthy development is challenging enough. But throw a tricky eating habit into the mix? In the words of Prince William, “If you put something on the table [the kids] don’t want to do, that’s another ballgame.” Mealtimes with picky-eater kids can be beyond stressful.
Research published in Eating Behaviors Journal shows children can develop specific eating patterns from the toddler age — something that originates back to our caveman days of foraging for non-poisonous foods. However, habits can also be learned as a child observes behaviors and aims to emulate those around them.
Luckily, many of the most common annoying eating habits among young kids fall into pretty specific boilerplate categories — and have just as specific ways to address them. Here are some steps you can take to determine which kind of picky eater your kid is, and how you can use that knowledge to help make mealtimes more enjoyable for both of you.
The fussy eater
Dealing with a picky eater can encourage stress, but try to stay calm. “The more relaxed the parent, the more relaxed the child, and the more likely the child is to eat a varied diet,” Jenny Tschiesche, nutrition expert and author of Real Lunchtime Food, tells SheKnows. “It tends to be the caregiver’s response that determines how things pan out.” Kids love attention, so any kind of response that reinforces a behavior — good or bad — will encourage them to stick with it. “Praise and be encouraging,” she suggests, “but don’t praise too easily.”
If your child is refusing what’s on their plate, it can be tempting to offer them any food to ensure they eat something — but try to avoid this if possible. “The more you do that, the less likely they are in future to eat the thing that you need them to,” child psychologist Natasha Tiwari tells SheKnows.
Don’t be discouraged with trying new foods, or assume one is written off for good. Children’s tastes evolve quickly — so what was spat out a couple of months ago might now be welcomed. You could also look at different ways of cooking certain foods, to see if one is more preferred.
The sugar fiend
Once a child has a sweet-tasting drink or snack, it can be a slippery slope to wanting more, more, more. If you’ve got a little sugar monster on your hands, Tschiesche and Tiwari agree the best approach is to wean your youngster off by replacing their usual favorites with less sugary alternatives.
“Do it slowly, and don’t make sugar a forbidden fruit; that is never going to work,” Tschiesche states. Does your child get excited when they spy a certain sugar-laden yogurt tub, for example? A little trickery, however, goes a long way: “Some parents use the same containers, but add in plain yogurt with a bit of puree or fruit compote.” Plus, notes Tiwari, “there are so many options for sugar-free foods in the supermarkets; it’s become such a part of healthy living.”
Still struggling? Tschiesche advises thinking about whether a nutrient deficiency could be behind your child’s desire for sweet treats. Reduced iron levels can lead to feelings of low energy and fatigue — making us crave sugary items for a boost. If you’re concerned this may be the case, have a chat with your GP.
The won’t-eat-in-front-of-others shy eater
“This is an anxiety response, and will link back to something that’s happened — where eating in front of people hasn’t led to a good outcome,” explains Tiwari. Perhaps the child was told off for not finishing a meal, or made to feel embarrassed about asking for seconds. “It can be really subtle moments that happen one time,” she continues, “but the emotion that’s involved is so strong, it feeds that [behavior] pattern.”
Because this tends to be more deep-rooted, Tiwari notes that parents will likely need some professional assistance to help see their child through. “We’ll develop a timeline, or a map of family dynamics, to look at how eating cultures have added up to a place where the child is behaving as they are.” From there, subconscious issues fueling this behavior can be worked through to help prevent future episodes.
The always-hungry garbage disposal eater
The concept of quality over quantity can apply to an always-hungry child. “Quite often, an insatiable appetite can be a result of not getting macronutrients correct,” Tschiesche reveals. “With any plate of food, a quarter should be protein, a quarter should be carbs, and the other half should be veg and fruit. Getting those ratios right can really help with appetite control.”
Providing your youngster with good quality proteins, rather than empty carbs, will help satiate hunger; incorporate foods such as salmon, meat, hummus and yogurt into their meals, rather than relying on white rice, bread, bagels and biscuits.
If you’ve got this balance right, a growth spurt might be causing your child to feel more hungry. However, sometimes being thirsty or bored can also kickstart those pangs, so offer a drink or activity to see if this helps before giving another snack.
The food protester
While it can be tough dealing with a child who constantly says they’re “not hungry” or only wants certain foods, it’s even trickier when they don’t want anything at all. There might be a couple of reasons behind this, shares Tschiesche.
“We need to expend energy to feel proper stomach hunger,” she explains. So a child that’s been running around all morning is going to feel more hungry than one that’s been sitting in front of the TV. If your child isn’t playing and wearing themselves out, then chances are their body won’t need as much food to replenish energy supplies, so take this into consideration.
Giving lots of liquids — particularly milk — prior to meals can fill their stomachs up, and too many snacks will have the same effect. Store snacks in harder-to-reach places, think about whether pre-meal drinks could be impacting hunger, and be aware that “older children may be attacking a snack drawer when you’re not looking,” Tschiesche adds.
Ultimately, dysfunctional eating habits can not only make mealtimes unenjoyable for all involved, but may also cause your child to miss out on key nutrients — so try to nip bad behaviors in the bud. As Tiwari notes: “The more progressed it is, the harder it is to treat.”
But of course, we’re all trying our best, so don’t put too much pressure on yourself. And if your little one refuses to eat something you’ve spent time lovingly preparing? Well, at least you can remember not to take it personally.
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