People ask me all the time, “Why doesn’t my kid eat?”. Most of you know how frustrating meal time can be when you try something new or worse when you serve something they’ve eaten before and then refuse to eat! Most kids will do this occasionally, but for some, it is a way of life. One of the reasons picky eating is so hard on parents is that children start life very accepting of food at a time when growth is at its highest. When a child all-of-a-sudden becomes more selective as growth slows, it worries and disappoints parents. But eating this way isn’t always problematic or something that needs to be fixed, but a normal part of a child’s development. Still it can happen when you least expect it. Pow… just like that. So, what gives? Well, a variety of factors can contribute and the reasons can evolve over time.
Why won’t my kid eat?!?!
First things first. Is your child a picky eater or are there other things going on that affect his eating? While there is no official definition of picky eating, experts often define it as a child who eats about 20-30 foods but can still tolerate new foods on their plate and eats from most food and texture groups. This is different than problem feeders that eat 20 or less food and have trouble tolerating new items on their plate. Knowing the difference can help determine which route to take to help your child.
There is value in doing some detective work to determine what is holding your child back. It’s important to rule out any medical reasons. Although this may seem like the most obvious reason kids don’t eat, it is often the most overlooked. Two of the most common culprits are acid reflux and constipation. Other reasons that require further investigation include sensory (for many “picky eaters” sensory processing plays a big role in their refusal to eat foods. Simply put, if something feels gross in their mouth or on their hands, they aren’t going to eat it) or mechanical (difficulty with chewing and swallowing foods) or behavioural issues (often learned behavior developed out of power struggles with parents at mealtimes). If you suspect that your child is having difficulty eating due to one or more of these reasons, consult with your doctor or dietitian who can help further investigate and provide an individualized plan of action.
The Benefits of Establishing an Eating Routine
Once these reasons are ruled out, start to consider ROUTINE. You’ve likely read this advice many times in parenting books or blogs, but let’s delve into this one again as it is often a culprit for picky eating and a relatively easy issue to tackle.
What do I mean by routine exactly? Well, I strongly believe that structure and routine around food and meal time are critical to kids eating well. I know there are a few kids out there that will manage to eat well with the lack thereof, but by in large most kids eating habits will suffer greatly without a regular routine. This can be a touchy subject for parents. We all have our comfortable eating habits and routines that we have already established for ourselves as adults. We often continue to do what is comfortable for us with our kids, but it isn’t always what they need. If you don’t have regular meal times, pay attention to how frequently they are eating. Do you eat in front of the TV often or mostly let your kids pick what they want to eat? If they aren’t eating well or willing to try foods, lack of routine may be the reason for it… or at least part of it. Serve meals and snacks at about the same times every day. 2.5-3 hours apart. Offer water (skip the juice and milk) between meals and snacks. Allowing your child to fill up on juice, milk, or snacks throughout the day might decrease his appetite for meals.
Tips for Picky Eaters
Once a routine is in place, take a look through this list of other “tips” to help your child with eating:
- UNDERSTANDING TEMPERAMENT – No two children are alike. I find it interesting that it is socially acceptable for an adult to have food preferences but as soon as a child habitually refuses a specific food, he can be considered a picky eater. If your child is healthy and growing well, albeit, with food preference, consider that it could be related to their level of adventure, flexibility, adaptability or even that they are more sensitive and emotional. By understanding your child’s temperament, you can begin to change your perception of picky eating.
- RESPECT YOUR CHILD’S CHANGING APPETITE – If your child isn’t hungry, don’t force a meal or snack. Likewise, don’t bribe or force your child to eat certain foods or clean her plate. This might only ignite — or reinforce — a power struggle over food. In addition, your child might come to associate mealtime with anxiety and frustration or become less sensitive to his or her own hunger and fullness cues.
- TAKE THE PRESSURE OFF – Like, really take it off. When some kids (often picky eaters) feel pressured to eat they often feel they need to protect themselves further and close themselves off from being open to new or different foods. Pressuring kids to eat comes in many forms. “Take two more bites of your vegetables and then you can have dessert.” or “If you finish your chicken, you can have the ipad after dinner”. Even praising your child for finishing their meals can be a form of pressure. What to do then? Ellyn Satter, a well known and respected feeding psychologist and Registered Dietitian recommends that you know your role as a parent and stick to it when it comes to feeding! Your role is to provide the WHAT (healthy food options) and WHEN (routine and schedule of feeding). Leave it up to the child to decide HOW MUCH and even WHETHER he will eat or not. Meaning, we decide when and what our kids eat, and they decide if they are going to eat it or not. Keep in mind that it may seem like feast or famine depending on the day. It is normal behaviour for a child’s intake to vary from day to day. Offering at least one food at each meal that you know that your child will eat and scheduling meals and snacks will start you in the right direction.
Your role is to provide the WHAT (healthy food options) and WHEN (routine and schedule of feeding). Leave it up to the child to decide HOW MUCH and even WHETHER he will eat or not.
- ENSURE A STRESS FREE MEALTIME – Free of distractions (yes, this means all ipads, TV’s, screens, and toys) and “food talk” (refrain from talking about “good” or “bad” foods or diet talk).
- RECRUIT YOUR KIDS TO HELP OUT– At the grocery store, ask your child to help you select fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods. At home, encourage your child to help you rinse veggies, stir batter or set the table. Getting your kids in the kitchen will not only help with exposure to new foods, it is the start of teaching your child the fundamental skills of cooking and preparing food to fuel their bodies.
Hidden Healthy Stuff
While I believe that “sneaking” vegetables or other refused foods into accepted foods provides short term benefits only, it can provide your little ones with much needed nutrients if they are refusing one or more food groups. Here is a tried and true recipe that weaves extra nutrients into them and help boost your child’s vegetable and protein intake.
Hidden Vegetable Tomato Sauce
This sauce can be used on pasta, chicken, or fish, or on pizzas. Keep a fresh container of it in the fridge or stash in the freezer.
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 red onion, chopped
1 small carrot, grated
½ small zucchini, grated
¼ small, red bell pepper, chopped
¼ apple, cored and grated
1 garlic clove, crushed
796-ml (28 oz) can crushed tomatoes
2 Tbsp tomato paste
¼ dried oregano
1 tsp sugar
Salt and ground pepper to taste
- Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan and gently cook the onion, carrot, zucchini, red pepper and apple until softened but not browned, about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute longer.
- Add the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat, partially cover, and simmer gently until thick and all the vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes. Stir from time to time.
- Puree the sauce in a blender or food processor. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cool and refrigerate, or freeze in individual portions; when needed, thaw at room temperature. Reheat until piping hot, then cool slightly before serving.
Recipe courtesy of Annabel Karmel, First Meals.
Please know that I totally appreciate how difficult making these changes may be and the daily struggle it is living with a child that has a limited diet. It is overwhelming, exhausting, and parents tend to unncessarily blame themselves. You aren’t alone! If you need more one-on-one help, I’m here for that too! I’ve successfully worked with lots of families to create a custom plan of action to get a child (or the whole family) back on track with healthy eating.
Originally published in Okanagan Child Magazine Summer 2016.