By Alexa Trolley-Hanson
“Ewww…I don’t like that!” This phrase is enough to make any parent’s hair stand on end. In today’s busy world, mealtimes are stressful enough without arguments about fruits and vegetables. To make matters worse, as our society becomes more concerned about rising childhood obesity rates, there is pressure on parents to help their children develop healthy eating habits earlier.
What is picky eating and is it normal? Research shows that most children (between 30 and 50 percent) go through a picky eating phase between the ages of 2 and 5. During this phase, a child may refuse to try new foods, refuse foods that they have liked or eaten in the past, and demonstrate rigid behaviors about how food is presented or prepared. For example: “There’s too much jelly on my sandwich.” When pushed, a child may resort to behaviors such as whining, crying and/or tantrums, leaving parents exhausted and dreading mealtimes. So what can parents do to help their child to get the nutrients they need without the fuss?
Pair new foods with old foods. Offer one food that your child normally eats. This takes the edge off of the child’s hunger, making him or her more willing to explore new foods. Then pick one food that you would like your child to eat and introduce it for a whole week. Pick foods that go with a food that your child likes or have characteristics that are similar to the types of food your child tolerates. If your child likes carrots and dip, try apple slices and yogurt as a dip.
Provide choices. Children at this age are developing a sense of self and desire more control over decisions. You can use this developmental process to your advantage by providing your child with choices where either answer is a good one. Some examples include “Would you like two pieces of apple or three?” or “Would you like your carrots cut into lines or circles?”
Involve your child. Whenever possible, involve your child in the preparation of food. This gives your child a chance to explore the smell, look and texture of the food before eating it. It also instills a sense of pride in the food. Look for children’s cookbooks like Kids’ Fun and Healthy Cookbook by Nicola Graimes.
Make food fun. Children learn through play. Talk about and explore the food you are eating. What color is it? Do you need to use your “big dinosaur teeth” to bite and chew it? Think about ways to present the food so it is appealing.
Calm and consistent. Don’t get upset if your child refuses to try new foods or eat anything at all when you have company over or when you go to a BBQ. Shared mealtimes can be overwhelming and distracting to children under 5. Focus on creating a calm and consistent mealtime routine at home.
When should parents worry? Here are some red flags that warrant having your child seen by a doctor, occupational therapist or speech language pathologist:
- Your child appears to be in pain after meals or experiences constipation
- Your child coughs or chokes frequently when eating or drinking
- Your child eats fewer than five foods and only one food texture
- Your child drops a food then doesn’t add it back in to his or her diet
- Your child’s pickiness continues after age 5
Remember: try to relax. If meals are fun for your child, they will be fun for you, too!