Tips for Picky Eaters
Does your child’s diet only consist of macaroni and cheese and chicken nuggets? Do Goldfish crackers seem to be their own food group in your home? We all know how delicious these options are, but we also know how important it is to eat a balanced diet and want the same for our children. While it’s easy to worry about your child’s eating habits, picky eating is very normal behavior as your child grows and learns to eat on their own. It’s not uncommon for children, especially those between the ages of 24 and 36 months, to show their independence and take control of their own food choices. Children at that age are starting to gain independence in many areas, and may also prefer exploring their world to eating.
“Children may like to eat their favorite foods, such as Goldfish or mac and cheese, because they know what to expect,” explained Alisha Delgado, Feeding Specialist at TARC, a Topeka-based organization that provides support for children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. “Little ones like control. Changing up food categories can feel more risky as it expands food textures in their mouth. Some veggies feel more squishy in the mouth compared to harder, crunchier foods and for some children that can be anxiety provoking at first. Or the reverse can be true, preferring soft and easy to swallow foods versus crunchy textures that require more control in the mouth and during the swallow. Eating can elicit feelings of enjoyment or feelings of anxiety and fear.”
Check out these great tips from our education team to help promote healthy eating with your little ones:
- Try to eat together as a family when you can. You are your child’s role model and they will watch and learn from you when you’re eating. Around 7 or 8 months of age, your child will start to grab at what you’re eating, signaling that they are starting to become interested in eating food.
- The family food table is also very important for a child’s development. Studies have shown that children who eat meals with their families do better in school, have higher self esteem, show less depressive symptoms and develop a larger vocabulary.
- Avoid excessive snacking throughout the day. While some snacks are fine, it is important to make sure your child is hungry when it’s time to eat their meals.
- It’s okay for children to play with their food! Children love to feed themselves, so make sure they have the opportunity to explore what they’re eating. It may be a little messy, but it’s important to allow healthy food exploration.
- Give your child options! Include something you know your child enjoys as well as a new food for them to taste and explore.
- Less is more. Large servings of food can be overwhelming for a child, so try out smaller plates and portions. You can always give them more food if they finish what they have and are still hungry.
- Make meal prep fun. Allowing your child to help choose new food at the store, prepare a meal, and talk about where the food comes from is a great way to help them become interested in what they’re eating.
- Food struggles are normal for a young child. It is important for you as the parent/caregiver to remain calm. Try redirecting the conversation to other topics during mealtime and not focusing on what your child is not eating.
- Avoid using food as a reward or punishment. This can potentially enhance eating issues with your child as they grow older.
Making a second meal for your child if they choose not to eat what you’ve served isn’t necessary. Save their food for later or offer a healthy snack as an alternative.
- Don’t be afraid to consult your pediatrician if needed. While picky eating is generally a normal phase for young children, it is very important to talk with your doctor if you feel that your child is not getting the proper nutrition.
Alisha Delgado offers the following suggestions in addition:
- Observe how much liquid your child is consuming. They may be drinking more of their calories than you realize and, therefore, not wanting to eat their food.
It’s normal for children to get “hooked” on eating one item over and over again. If your child tends to fall into a “food rut” they will typically get tired of the food after a few days.
- Divided plates can be helpful since we “eat with our eyes.” How the food is presented can affect how well your child eats.
- Ideally, you would like for your child to eat the rainbow of color food choices. If your child eats only white and brown foods, you can slowly introduce other color to your child’s palate by giving them drinks that have color, or add food coloring to water/milk so they can be exposed to different food colors. Adding food coloring to foods like potatoes can give cognitive reinforcement to different food colors. Hard, crunchy foods can also be a way to expand children’s cognitive variation to enhance their visual food palate.
Children grow and develop at different rates and their food preferences will vary as they grow as well. Remember to be patient! Your child is gaining independence and is looking to you as a guide to lead them on the path of healthy eating.