Tips for picky eaters

7 Mar

When Hannah was little, she used to eat any puree I put on her little spoon.  She loved any and all food. I can’t pinpoint when, or how it happened, but now she is fussy.  Really fussy.  It drives me nuts.  She’s been this way for at least two years now, and instead of gradually getting better, it just gets worse.  I fear that she isn’t getting enough vitamins, minerals, and protein to sustain her and keep her healthy.  I know it’s not just Hannah though, eating is a huge problem.  According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, 50% of toddlers aged 2-4 are picky eaters (up from 19% of under twos), which accounts for 95% of all picky eaters.

Lucky for me (and probably you too), I received some picky eater tips, and got some of my own questions answered by Kate Samela, Paediatric nutritionist, mom of two, and author of Give Peas a Chance: The Foolproof Guide to Feeding Your Picky Toddler, which was name a “mom must read” by Parents.com.

givepeasachance

One of Kate’s tips is using kids’ favorite textures (not tastes!) to expand their eating habits. The goal is to try and identify foods that are similar in texture and consistency to foods that he already accepts and that have the same “mouth feel”.  The familiar and accepted texture can be a bridge to a new flavor or food acceptance.

If they like …

Crunchy/Salty: Instead of Cheerios or Goldfish, try Terra Stix or mini rice cakes

Sweet and Squishy: Instead of pancakes, try freeze-dried fruit cubes or sweet breads like pumpkin or zucchini

Smooth and Slippery: Instead of string cheese, try a yogurt smoothie or pudding

Soft/Mushy: Instead of mac and cheese, try sweet potato pancakes or oven-baked eggplant parmesan

  • Offer the food with a safety food and as part of a meal. A safety food is one food that you are certain your toddler will accept – something familiar and likeable. For example, if you are trying to expose your toddler to meat, pair it with his favorite fruit or vegetable and a starch (i.e. watermelon and French fries).
  • Allow your toddler to touch and play with that food, even if it means putting it in his mouth and then spitting it out. Playing with food is something that toddlers do and they engage in this activity because it is a key part of their development.
  • Serve the same food to all at the table, so your toddler will see other people eating what he is being served.
  • Offer the food in small quantities so that he does not get discouraged or overwhelmed. “Portion Distortion” begins in the toddler stage: Bags of chips, cookies, and snack crackers are bigger than ever. Often, parents feel like their toddler is eating nothing because they have piled on grown-up portion sizes, or even quantities of food that an older sibling would eat.
  • If after two minutes your toddler says the dreaded “I’m done,” ignore him and attempt to engage him to talk about something he did that day. Do not try and overzealously attempt to keep him at the table, or set “rules” for what else he has to eat before he gets down. There is a biological reason for a decrease in food intake between the ages of one to three, and that is a slower rate of growth. Appetite mimics rate of growth; therefore, appetite “slows down.”
  • Consider what your toddler eats over the course of a week, rather than from meal to meal. You can even pick several days if a week seems just too long. The idea that his decrease in appetite is developmentally appropriate should give you some reassurance for those days that his eating doesn’t seem to add up to nutrition perfection.  In a day, it can be normal for a toddler to eat one “good” meal.

I asked some specific questions to Kate, about things I struggle with in regards to Hannah.  Here is what she said:

Q:My daughter is 3.5, and very picky. Instead of starting to get less picky, she keeps getting pickier. She will often refuse to eat things she loved not so long ago, and say “I don’t like that anymore.” She doesn’t just not like it for a week or so. When she says that, that’s it, she won’t eat it again no matter how many times I put it on her plate. Is this normal, and what can I do about it?

KS: As frustrating as this can be, it happens with some kids. The first thing you have to do is think about how you (or anyone eating with her) are responding to her declaration of “I don’t like it”. If you feel the scenario escalates into a battle of wills more often than not (i.e. You respond: “What do you mean you don’t like this, you just ate it yesterday!”), then there are some changes to be made. Simply ignore her declaration and act like you don’t care either way. Try saying, “Well, I am sure you can find something on the table you like.”

If however, these food refusals are accompanied by weight loss, persistent stomach aches, changes in bowel habits, or constant fatigue, you need to speak with your pediatrician as her decline in food intake could signal something else.

2. Question from a reader: My 18 month old daughter eats pretty balanced meals, but sometimes she refuses to eat anything for a few days, she will drink milk though. Her doctor warned me that if she drinks more than 12oz a day she could get very ill and possibly die. My initial reaction was fear, but I’m feeling a little mislead, any input? thank you!

KS: The big concern with excessive milk intake in toddlers who have very little table food in their diets relates to iron deficiency anemia. Milk is a poor source of iron, and foods help keep iron stores within normal limits. The severity of the anemia will depend upon how long the scenario has been going on. Meaning, when a child doesn’t eat anything, and drinks more than 16 ounces of milk per day week after week, it can become a serious problem. Usually, it occurs when the child is drinking large quantities of milk (like more than 24 ounces).

Be sure that you are still going through the routine of offering regularly scheduled meals and snacks, and be sure you (or the caregiver) are sitting and eating with her. Use these days as a chance to offer something new and fun – sometimes kids just get bored of the same old stuff – especially at 18 months.

Also, pay attention to her stooling pattern during these 3 day food refusals – if she is constipated, she might not feel like eating. Give 2-4 ounces of pear juice per day to help her move things along.

And lastly, give her a daily MVI with Fe, such as a Flintstones Complete, to be on the safe side

 

3. I know you say I shouldn’t overzealously try to keep my daughter at the table and make her eat x and y before she gets down, but is it ok to make her sit at the table until dinner time is finished if she doesn’t actually have to eat anything? Usually I let her get down when she’s done if she eats all of her food, but if she doesn’t, she has to stay at the table until dinner is finished (and I emphasize the fact that she doesn’t have to eat anything). She always wants to get down though.

KS: It sounds like there are mixed messages being passed along. Your daughter would benefit from a consistent response to her request to get down from the table. Meaning, whether or not she gets down should not depend upon what she ate or didn’t eat. If your goals are to have her sit for longer with the family to enjoy the time together, then it’s fair to set the rule that no one can get up before everyone is finished. And I agree that she does not have to eat anything while she is sitting. One suggestion: quietly be mindful of how long she has been sitting, but don’t feel the need to set a timer. She should not know you are keeping track of time, otherwise she will dread coming back time and time again.

4. When I put something that Hannah “doesn’t like” (I use the term loosely because it’s not based on taste, just what she says she doesn’t like without trying it), she won’t even eat the things she does like that are in a different section of the segmented plate. Often she will even turn around in her chair because she “doesn’t want to see it.” How can I get her to try things when she won’t even touch or look at them?

KS: This is a tough one. First, I would want to know if you remove the offending food on a regular basis. If you have fallen into that habit to keep peace at mealtime (full disclosure, I have done it too!), she might be persistent with this response based on her past experiences. If you have removed it once, you will remove it again! (Note from Sheri added after questions were answered: I do not take the offending food away.)

I would suggest putting what you made for dinner on serving dishes instead, and allow her to try and serve herself instead. Most 5 year olds can do this with a tiny amount of guidance, but if she is younger, than she might need some hands on help. Kids LOVE the autonomy of putting their own food their plates, and might even be motivated after a few weeks of doing it, to put something new on the plate too. Otherwise, you can try today the website Today I ate a Rainbow, and see if the charts and rewards help – it’s a great site.

5. I recently got a rewards chart for Hannah. If she tries her dinner, she gets a sticker. If she gets stickers for a week, she gets a predetermined (by a discussion between Hannah and me) prize. She doesn’t even have to eat the food. All I want is for her to put one little bit in her mouth, just so she can taste the flavour and hopefully start to get used to putting different things in her mouth, and even coming to like the different tastes. Do you think a rewards chart is a good idea for picky eaters?

KS: I think it depends on how it is presented, and of course the personality of the child. If what she is eating (or what she is not) is a major focus of her day, every day, every meal, then I think the chart is overkill. Additionally, she might just feel like she is constantly disappointing you by not taking just a bite.  You want her to feel like she can choose to try a new food because she wants to. You can motivate her by taking some focus away from food, and take the pressure off meal time a bit and just enjoy each other’s company.

 

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2 Responses to “Tips for picky eaters”

  1. perilousvoyageofme March 8, 2013 at 6:13 pm #

    Great post! Not that I have children, but being a nanny for many years, that was helpful. It seems that all 3 year olds are picky eaters, and the idea of same texture is brilliant.

    • Mommy Adventures March 8, 2013 at 8:36 pm #

      Yeah, most 3 year olds I know are picky. Especially the girls.

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