Is dinner time in your home more like a war zone than a fun family get-together? Mealtimes are often romanticised as great family bonding experiences where everyone gets along, eats whatever has been prepared and chats about their day. In reality, however, this is often not how a typical dinner time will look! Sadly, many families do not manage to eat a meal together regularly, and more frequently, technology is intruding into this time. Adding a tricky eater into the mix is certainly not a recipe for mealtime bliss!
Luckily there are some tricks and tools you can use to make mealtimes for picky eaters less stressful and more enjoyable for everyone.
It may be helpful to tease out whether you really do have a picky eater, to begin with, or if you have had the wool pulled over your eyes! While all children learn the art of manipulation rather quickly, there are some valid reasons why some children may be fussy about what they will eat.
Your child could be fussing for one or more of these reasons:
Asserting Control. As a toddler, your little one may be going through a phase of trying to assert her control on any and every area she can, and what she eats is just one of them.
Sensitive sense of smell. Your little one may have a very sensitive sense of smell and this may be particularly evident with her aversion to specific foods, with more intense smells usually resulting in a heightened aversion (e.g. fish, strong cheeses, citrus)
Emotional connections. The smell of certain foods may have a negative emotional connection for your child. Unlike our other senses, information from our olfactory receptors travels straight to the emotional part of our brains. Thus, certain smells may have a positive or negative connotation attached to it, which will impact mood and behaviour.
The look of it. What food looks like can be a determining factor. Does your child prefer a busy, vibrant visual experience, or does that overwhelm her visual sense? Would a subdued and “boring” plate of food appeal more?
The flavour. As adults, some of us prefer more spicy or intense flavours in our meals while others are happier eating a more bland diet. The same is true for our little ones. Often stronger flavours are enjoyed more as your child gets older, but this is not always the case!
The feel. The way that food feels in your child’s mouth may be the biggest factor for a true picky eater to overcome. Babies have a higher concentration of touch receptors in the mouth than in the hands and fingers! It’s for this reason that most objects get explored by putting them in the mouth. Your little one will get far more information about an object than if she simply touches and holds it. If your little one has a sensitive touch system, she may be unable to tolerate certain textures and even temperatures of food in her mouth. This sensitivity may result in her gagging and refusing to eat certain foods.
Once you have determined that your child has a sensitivity to one or more aspects of a meal, what can you do? You need to be a mealtime detective!
Observe how your child responds to different foods and try to determine the cause of the pickiness. Once you have an idea of the reason, here are 10 tips to help overcome them.
1. Introduction of new foods. Try to introduce new foods when your little one is happy, hungry and well-rested. Introduce one new food at a time and always have a favourite food on the plate along with a new one.
2. Explore and play. Allow your child to explore and play with food while preparing it or dishing it. Toddlers are more likely to try something that they have helped to prepare or grow, and it’s always better to have fun while trying new things.
3. Distract. Distraction can be a helpful tool but be aware of using something that will be so good at distracting that your little one will block out her feeling full cues.
4. The one-bite rule. This rule should apply to everyone in the family and will build trust if used correctly. Implement a firm rule that everyone at the table should try at least one bite of a new food before saying they don’t like it - even if they have tried it previously. Tastes change over time and food your little one did not like previously may become a firm favourite as she gets older.
5. Textures tamers. If a lumpy texture is a challenge for your little one, try to add nutrient value to what she will eat. You can blend foods to make them smoother or disguise puréed veggies into sauces while working on expanding their food preferences. Offer something cold (e.g. ice blocks) before and after new foods - the cold and the crunching will help their sensitive sensory system deal with the new texture. Include lots of crunchy options - the hard work of biting, chewing and crunching helps to deal with other textures.
6. Mix it up. Try mixing things up. Here are some options:
7. Offer closed choices. Respect your little one’s responses so rather offer her closed choices instead of ignoring her when she says no to a new food. Do you want to try this or that?
8. Model good eating habits. Children will do as we do, not as we say! So, if Dad refuses to eat the veggies, it won’t be too surprising if your little one starts to refuse too! Practice good table manners and allow mealtimes to have a definite start and end time. Mealtimes that linger on longer than necessary can be stressful for everyone.
9. Don’t give up. Try not to be tempted to fall back on unhealthy options just to get a full tummy. Be purposeful about the food choices you offer and use lots of praise for trying new things. Dish a balanced plate of all food items made, even those you know your little one will not try. Over time, she will get accustomed to seeing and smelling these foods, which in the future may help her to taste it.
10. Ask for help The old wive’s tale that children will eat when they need to eat is not always true, and picky eating can lead to failure to thrive in some toddlers and children. Work closely with your Paediatrician and seek the help of a Dietician or Sensory trained Occupational Therapist if you feel you are not winning the war!
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