It is very common for children to be picky about what they eat and these periods of “fussy eating” are often viewed as a normal part of childhood development. Let’s be honest, not many children like broccoli on the first try! In fact, a study published in the journal Appetite found that of 120 children aged 3-11 years old, 39% were picky eaters at some stage.
Whilst some children will naturally develop mature eating habits with time, others have more difficulty and require additional support from parents. Aversion to eating can make meal times very stressful for families, and often parents can worry that their child may not be receiving adequate nutrition.
Common challenges for children include:
eating very limited types of food
refusing to try new foods
gagging or vomiting when eating, seeing or smelling particular foods
requiring continual supervision or increased time to eat a meal
becoming anxious and distressed around meal times
There are many reasons why a child may avoid eating certain foods, and often it can relate to their particular sensory preferences. Factors influencing children’s eating habits could include:
texture (crunchy or soft foods)
colour (often preference for white or beige foods)
taste (sour, sweet, salty or bitter)
the way the food was prepared (such as the particular pan or plate)
delayed oral motor skills
the environment in which they are eating
Whilst your child may not be able to communicate their reasons for not eating, or they may not know themselves, through time and trialing different techniques, you can better understand your child’s preferences. The key is to try and put yourself in their shoes!
Some helpful strategies to trial at home:
Determine your child’s preferences: Make a list of foods your child will and won’t eat. Also consider where your child will eat the foods, when and how. Is a pattern evident? If so, you can use this to support your child to try new foods.
Let the child become comfortable with the new food: Initially you may put the food on a separate plate for a few meals before moving it across to their plate. Encourage your child to explore this new food by looking, touching and smelling, with no pressure to eat it.
Introduce one new food a time: Try to introduce a new food that fits with your child’s preferences and keep other components of the meal as familiar foods your child enjoys.
Enjoy the new food with your child! When parents and siblings model trying new food and enjoying the taste, it can make it less daunting for the child to try it.
Ensure the mealtime environment is comfortable: Often noisy and crowded environments can be overwhelming.
Involve your child in food preparation: Have a veggie patch outside? Ask your child to help you pick the produce. Or encourage your child to be with you in the kitchen while your prepare dinner and help with tasks (eg. stirring, washing vegetables etc). Helping with this process can make children more motivated to try what they have helped prepare!
Creating a visual schedule: Clearly showing your child when mealtimes are scheduled can help reduce their anxiety. You can also set a timer to countdown to when the next meal or snack will begin.
Strengthen oral motor muscles: Another cause for eating difficulties could be delayed oral motor skills. Strengthen muscles by completing activities such as blowing up balloons, sucking on straws and drinking from sports bottles.
If your child has difficulties with eating and you would like additional support, please contact Kids At Max on (03) 9702 4447.
Written by Kids At Max – Occupational Therapis