When you are a parent and your child is not eating, this can be so stressful! This is often the case for parents of children who are picky or fussy eaters. Not only are parents stressed. This can greatly impact the whole family.
As a Pediatric Occupational Therapist, I have worked with the family to develop strategies that teach children about learning about new foods and that work well with the family routine.
In this article, I’m going to share the tips that health professionals use and recommend that actually work!
What is a Picky Eater?
A picky eater is an individual who does not eat a variety or quantity of food or does not want to try new foods. Picky eating, problem eaters, and fussy eaters are common terms. Although in the literature they mean different things, they are typically used interchangeably.
Picky eating is more common in children, whereby the child decides to eat certain foods and eats nowhere close to their entire meal. Most kids who are picky eaters will only eat certain food groups and it is common for these not to be healthy foods.
Parents worry when their child does not choose healthy choices or a healthy diet, but in extreme measures, a health care provider or health professional will need to assist in changing the child’s diet.
Why is my child a Picky Eater?
If your child is not eating a variety of foods, it could be due to a range of reasons. It could be due to:
- Oral motor problems
- Sensorimotor issues
- Self-feeding delays, or
- Selective eating (O’Brien & Kuhaneck, 2019).
For young children, they may not eat meals because:
- They aren’t hungry
- They want a sense of control
- Unfamiliar with the food
- Negative past experience with the food
- Feeling too stressed during meals (and yes, this happens when we are forcing or “encouraging” children to eat.
Here are some strategies that have been effective in teaching young kids about food and changing the child’s eating habits.
1. Be patient with new foods
Before you introduce a new food, remember that according to the SOS Approach to Feeding, there are at least 32 Steps to Eating.
When introducing a new food, it is important to be patient and introduce it slowly. Although the child refuses to eat it, you may want to re-introduce it again in a week.
They may be unfamiliar with the food. Teach them what it is called, talk about things that are the same and different from different foods that they enjoy eating, and show them that the same food can look different.
For example, corn from the frozen vegetable pack will look different from a cob of corn. Talk about how they are both corn, yellow and juicy. But they are different because one is bigger and one is smaller.
2. Reduce the number of snacks and drinks
For some children, reducing the number of snacks and drinks can encourage children to eat food during mealtimes. As they may be eating finger foods or getting calories through their drinks, they may not be as hungry when they are sitting down for meals.
We are not encouraging you to starve your children! We are simply encouraged to consider reducing the number of snacks, especially when it is close to meal times.
3. Encourage conversation
Start talking more about food with your child.
You can start by asking them simple questions about food to encourage conversations.
- What’s your favourite food?
- What do you like about [favourite food]?
If they enjoy eating strawberries, you might research some fun facts about that food, like where it came from, why they called it strawberries? You might want to talk about the nutrients or health benefits of strawberries. When your child learns about the function of food (i.e. to help them grow), and the purpose of nutrients, then that may encourage healthy eating.
When they are more comfortable talking about a child’s favorite foods, you can educate them about nutritious foods or healthy foods. Not to force your child to eat these foods but simply talk about how they “give you energy” or “are good for your eyes”.
Encouraging conversations about food can help develop healthy eating habits!
4. Let the kids play with their food.
I know! Mess means extra cleaning.
BUT research states that children learn best through play! And yes, that even means with food. Instead of getting them to eat the same foods every day, playing with food can expose them to different foods.
When they learn more and become familiar with the food, they no longer see it as scary or unfamiliar. They don’t need to eat the food. Play allows them to use their senses and interact with the food, like touching, smelling and looking at the food.
If you have certain foods you want your child to start eating, maybe get them to start playing with it. Make artwork with the food. Or use the carrot stick as a magic wand. Unleash your creative side or go online to search for ideas. There are so many creative food play ideas online!
5. Form a routine
Avoid power struggles by forming a daily routine. It might be play time, dinner time and then shower. You might want to add washing hands and putting plates in the sink as part of the routine. Whatever your routine is, try and keep it consistent each day. Consistent routines means children can know what to expect and this can mean fewer power struggles.
6. Get them to prepare foods with you
Whether it is going to the grocery store or farmer’s market, encourage kids to go food shopping with you. Getting your kids involved in choosing foods for their three meals a day can help them feel a sense of control and they may be more willing to try these foods.
When you get home, give them a job of helping you prepare the meal. Repeated exposure to new foods, even if it is just peeling the sweet potato, can help them interact more with the food. They can learn this is what a food looks like raw and then cooked.
7. Respect your Child’s Appetite or Lack of
Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding suggests that it is the parent’s responsibility for what, when and where whereas the child is responsible for how much and whether.
This means, the parent can choose:
- What we are eating as a family
- When we are eating (e.g. what time), and
- Where we eat (e.g. at the dinner table)
However, the child also needs some sense of control so they can be responsible for
- How much they eat, and
- Whether they eat the food or not.
Yes, it can be tricky because “what if the child doesn’t eat anything?” or “what if they only eat the chicken nuggets?”. Well, as a parent you can choose what you are eating. It’s okay to share responsibility with your child.
Additionally, if we combine this strategy with the other strategies (like reducing snacks and drinks), then your child may be more motivated to eat during mealtimes.
8. Be Creative
Some children are sensitive to the taste, smell or texture of food.
Write down a list of foods that your child eats. Are there any specific tastes, smells, or textures that they like?
Some children like all crunchy foods, like carrot sticks, chips, crackers, etc. If you see that your child likes a specific type of texture, find other foods that have similar textures. This is the same with tastes and smells.
Use Creativity instead of compromising health
For example, if you are trying to get your child to eat fruits, you can use cookie cutters to make stars and circle-shaped watermelons.
9. Remove Distractions
A common strategy to help keep children seated during mealtimes is to keep them engaged through screen time like watching television or iPad. However, I would suggest removing distractions.
Although the child may not be able to remain seated for as long, they will be able to use all their senses to learn about the food.
If your child is engaged in the screen, their body is going to be focused on what they are watching, rather than tasting, smelling, looking and, even eating the food.
This is not something just children do. Adults do this too. Have you noticed you don’t enjoy or sense the food as much when you are eating lunch while working or being on your phone?
Use this time so your child learns more about the food.
Picky Eaters: Frequently Asked Questions
Many parents have questions about picky eaters. We have added a list of frequently asked questions below.
What causes a child to be a Picky Eater?
There can be a range of reasons why a child is a picky eater. Sometimes it might be due to power struggle and they want to have a sense of control.
Other times, the child may have more significant difficulties like sensory and/or motor issues impacting them to chew and taste foods.
Some children who experience reflux might have learnt that eating food means upset tummy or feeling unwell, therefore there is a negative association with food.
Is Picky Eating a Mental Disorder?
Typically picker eating is not a mental disorder. However, this depends on the reason why your child is a picker eater.
Sometimes it can be due to a mental disorder. If you think this is the case, it is important to talk to your child’s doctor.
What Age does Picky Eating Start?
Picky eating is common in childhood. However, it is often to peak in early childhood (Wolstenholme, Kelly, Hennessy & Heary, 2020)
What is a Good Diet for Picky Eaters?
If you can, encourage to get them to eat at least one type of protein and one type of vegetable in their meal.
How to increase the appetite of a Picky Eater?
Reducing snack food is a great way to increase appetite so they feel hungrier during mealtime.
What health professionals can help with Picky Eaters?
Health professionals who have experience working with children and picky eaters can assess and provide strategies to families.
- Pediatric Occupational Therapist
- Pediatric Speech Language Pathologist
Here are some practical strategies that we have tried and tested with our picky eaters. Try some of these strategies and let us know which ones work best.
Here’s to help your child move from being a picky eater to being an adventurous eater!
Wolstenholme, H., Kelly, C., Hennessy, M., & Heary, C. (2020). Childhood fussy/picky eating behaviours: a systematic review and synthesis of qualitative studies. International Journal Of Behavioral Nutrition And Physical Activity, 17(1). doi: 10.1186/s12966-019-0899-x