Written by Tamara Cohen, PhD, RD, Scientist in Nutrition and Lifestyle (PERFORM Centre, Concordia University)
As a dietitian, I get a lot of questions about healthy eating and even more about how to feed a picky eater. During my doctoral studies, I had the opportunity to work closely with children and their parents to help them achieve healthier lifestyles- some of which involved picky eaters (also known as fussy, faddy or choosy eating). As a mother to two young boys, I understand first hand how frustrating it can get. I hope I can share a few take home messages from what I learned from this study and a few tips to help you with your fussy eater.
What does the science tell us?
The first thing I always tell parents is that you are not alone. We all have our struggles with food: some parents have a picky eater, others have children who do not stop eating (to be discussed in the upcoming blogs!). You cannot beat yourself up. Picky eaters affect boys and girls alike, although research suggests it occurs less in children who have siblings. What people might not realize is the way we parent does play a role: authoritarian parenting styles (meaning you try to control it all) has been shown to be related to a child’s eating behaviour, specifically picky eating. You can read more about this research here. So what parenting styles have shown to be related to less picky eaters? Parents who model how to eat, who make meal time fun and who involve their kids in meal preparation and planning. As one author put it, it is important to consider the “meal's emotional climate”: create a positive experience from start to end for you and your family by engaging all members in preparing and introducing new foods to the table.
What about nutrient deficiencies?
The good news: Recent work, such as the studies here and here, suggest that picky eating is not associated with a child’s body mass index (in other words their growth trajectories) or micronutrient deficiencies (like calcium or iron). More often these children simply consume what they want- their favourite foods. So does this mean your child needs to take a multivitamin? Most likely not, but children who are vegetarian or vegan should consider a supplement. If you are very concerned, consider talking to a registered dietitian licensed in Canada.
What does this all mean?
Your job as a parent is to provide the healthy food options:
WHAT are they going to eat?
WHEN will you serve the food?
WHERE are you serving the food?
As a parent, you are in charge of deciding the food items that is being served and when it is time to eat. Just like a sleep schedule, you need to be consistent and keep to “a meal schedule”. As best you can, try to offer the meals and snacks at the same time each day. Just like adults, avoid serving snacks or meals while your child is doing other things (meaning not while watching TV, colouring or reading stories). Make snack and meal times a time to sit at the table and talk.
Your child’s job is to start thinking independently:
IF they want to eat. Even if its scheduled meal or snack time, encourage your child to “check in” and ask themselves “are you hungry?” If your child is truly hungry, they will eat.
HOW MUCH will they want to eat. Remember the size of a child’s stomach is very small. Sometimes I too catch myself thinking: “That’s all?” It is important to adjusting your thinking and trust your child knows what is best for them (in terms of quantity consumed).
Tamara’s Top Three Tips:
1. Try to not pressure, praise, reward, trick or punish your child for not eating a particular food item. We want children to become independent thinkers, especially when it comes to understanding if they are truly hungry and to learn to stop when they are full.
2. Prepare one meal and stick to your guns. At first this may seem daunting- this is truly the impossible. But with time it will become easier. Try to have your child help out with the preparation of the meal. Talk to your child as you cook together and explain to them why it is important to eat the foods you are cooking. This site expands on this idea.
3. Keep trying! Continue to offer the same foods or meals on different days of the week for a few weeks. It can take up to 10 times before they even agree to a small bite. But most of all, have fun with it. Try these creative ideas to get your picky eater loving it all.
Whatever you do, don’t give up! And remember, you are never alone.