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Picky Eating In Children | Is It Normal and What To Do

Picky eating amongst children is a tale as old as time. It’s no secret that children usually prefer things like fish sticks and pizza instead of steamed salmon and broccoli but it can be a frustrating endeavor to ensure that your child is not only open to trying and discovering new foods but also getting the proper nutrients when their obvious preference in foods are less nutritionally sound. Whether you are looking for ways to just get your child to be more open about new foods or you are concerned about more serious issues that perhaps need to be addressed by a professional, here is some information to take into account.

What is Picky Eating?

While there is no universal definition for what constitutes a picky eater, some of the most common manifestations are tied to avoidance of certain food groups, inability to tolerate certain textures in food, or just a very narrow window of preference when it comes to what a child is willing to eat. Picky eating is not something that needs to be diagnosed and most kids will usually grow out of it with some focus on tweaking behaviors and finding creative ways to have them comfortably expand their palette.

What Causes Picky Eating

Children naturally do not have as advanced of a palette as an adult but there can be a whole host of reasons why they can become quite picky in terms of trying new foods. Everything from smell, taste, or texture can be off-putting at first but other reasons can be psychological and even temperamental. Some children may naturally be wired for picky eating and there are some studies that have shown that children who have difficulties expressing emotions can also develop picky eating behaviors as a symptom of an overall behavior issue. Others follow their parent’s own selective behaviors, they may see a way of using food as a bargaining tool or it can happen at times when parents use certain food groups in a punishment or reward model. Even beyond this, some new additions may come off as too different from their current comfort levels. There really are a million different ways that picky eating can develop

How Can I Address Picky Eating at Home?

There are a lot of strategies that you can use with your picky eater to help them expand their palette and get the nutrition that they need.  Here are a few places to start.

Branch out with the foods they already like

One of the easiest ways to expand the variety of a child’s palette is to piggyback or cross a bridge on what already works. Take note of what your child already loves and see if you can gently expand that with other foods that are of a similar texture, taste, look or smell.  For example, if they like Spaghetti-O’s from a can, serve some other types of pasta like Spaghetti or Ravioli, or even try a different sauce like an Alfredo to help them experience some new flavors and textures. This can also work great with fruits and veggies. Does your child go crazy for strawberries? Attempt small pieces of other types of fruit with a similar texture like kiwis or a similar flavor like raspberries.

Don’t just serve their favorite foods

You want to give your baby the things that make them happy and there is some warm feeling in making someone you love their favorite meal. But in order to grow, boundaries have to be pushed. Making your child’s favorite meal less frequently gives space for the whole family to try new things and makes it less of a big deal when inevitably there is something on the menu that is not exactly to their tastes. Instead of always going with the foods you already know they love, maybe make a favorite meal once or twice a week and try something completely new once a week to add new variety.

Avoid too many sugary drinks

Too many sugary or highly caloric drinks pose two main problems. The first is that it can interfere with expanding a palette due to a high level of sweetness. The second problem is that sugary drinks can act as a filler, which means that the child will have less room for actual food. Instead of pairing a meal with juice or soda, try and see if a glass of water or milk will be tolerated by the child at mealtimes.

Make mealtime a happy occasion

Show that mealtime can be fun! This can be done in several ways from creating family traditions where everyone eats together, to plating in special ways that appeal to the child. Remember being a kid and thinking of broccoli as trees? How about mashed potato volcanos? It’s not always a bad thing to play with food, in fact, sometimes it can be the key to making your child enjoy it more. Cooking together can also be a great way to add some fun and interactivity to your family’s meals where the child also takes pride in knowing that they helped create what everyone is enjoying.

Understand their feeding eccentricities

While we, of course, want our children to love everything we give them, the fact of the matter is they are just like everyone else and some things just won’t appeal to them. We all have food preferences and when a child shows that they really hate something, it’s important to respect that. It can sometimes be a fine line between allowing them to grow their own tastes and helping them discover new things without being inhibited, but the key is probably to never force anything. If they are adamant that they don’t like something, it’s best to take note and move on. There will be other foods down the line that they will love that can act as a bridge to get them to try other things.

Stand your ground to requests

When you are tired and just want to make sure that your child has eaten, it is completely understandable why it would be easier to go with the path of least resistance by essentially becoming a short order cook and making the child exactly what they want when they refuse their meal. The problem with this, however, is that it sets a precedent that if the child makes enough of a fuss, they can get out of eating what has already been made for them and will magically be rewarded with their request. If there are instances when the child truly is having trouble eating a certain meal, having some quick and healthy backup options like yogurt can be helpful. This way, the parent doesn’t have as much pressure but they also aren’t giving into the demands of the toddler by making an entirely new meal.

Explain what food does for them

While we expect the taste of food to be enough of a selling point to get kids on board with eating, another really effective way to get them excited about food is to appeal to their imaginations. Explaining the function of foods in a fun way may help them to see things like veggies and nutrient-packed foods in a new light. Beans contain protein that helps your muscles get big and strong. Carrots have vitamin A that helps you see in the dark. Spinach contains antioxidants that make the cells in your body fight against enemy invaders! When they can envision the superpowers that certain foods can give them, it makes them more thrilling to eat.

Avoid making dessert the reward

We have all heard or said the phrase “No dessert until you finish your meal.” And it can definitely work, however, it can also create an image that dessert is the only thing of value in the meal. The aim is to make the entire meal a pleasant experience and when we phrase things in a way where dessert is the goal, it makes the meal itself something that one must slog through. Instead of making dessert so special, it may be helpful to actually serve dessert with dinner so that all parts of the meal are considered equal or perhaps even forgoing dessert on some nights so that there is not always the expectation of it.

When Should I Be Concerned About Picky Eating?

In most cases, picky eating resolves without the need for medical intervention but there are some circumstances when help may be beneficial. If the pickiness becomes so rigid that the child ends up not eating enough or if they begin to miss out on key nutrients in their diet, then simple tips to try at home may not be enough. Also, some children can have difficulty with the mechanics of eating such as swallowing or chewing, in which case feeding therapy may be necessary. In both these cases talking with the child’s pediatrician would be the best first stop. Depending on the exact issue, the doctor may simply offer some suggestions to try at home or if there is more concern, they may give the parent a referral to have the child evaluated by a speech or occupational therapist.

What Treatments are Available?

When a parent needs intervention in regard to a child’s eating habits, they will typically be referred to a feeding therapy specialist. This type of therapy addresses both strong food aversions as well as difficulties with the actual act of eating. Pediatric feeding therapy is conducted by either a speech or occupational therapist and helps to address behaviors with feeding techniques aimed to improve texture tolerance, eating efficiency, and overall eating routines.

Feeding Therapy at Solace Pediatric

When picky eating becomes enough of an issue to warrant intervention, Solace Home Heath Care offers highly trained and empathetic speech and occupational therapists who will come directly to your home to work with your child in their most familiar environment. Since most feeding takes place at home, in-home therapy is ideal because it allows the therapist to see firsthand what mealtime is like and make suggestions that can be seamlessly integrated into the family’s daily routine. If you feel like your child can benefit from feeding therapy, please feel free to get in touch and we can provide more information and answer any questions to see if in-home therapy is right for you and your little one.

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