One in three parents will describe their child as a “picky”. There never seems to be a shortage of well-intentioned advice givers offering their two cents. Many of this advice however can be unhelpful and even harmful. Here are some myths about picky eating and some tips in addressing this common issue.
1. “Parents are to blame”
“send him to my house, I’ll have him fixed in no time”
“you’re just not being strict enough”
People may assume extreme picky eating cases are the same as their children with more typical fussiness. Comments such as these can be extremely invalidating leaving parents feeling very alone.
Many factors contribute to how a child experiences a food and their ability to eat it. There may be medical issues, sensory processing issues (which are typical in autistic spectrum disorders), or oro-motor difficulties (difficulties with chewing/ swallowing). About 25 percent of the population are supertasters and sense bitter tastes and other flavours more intensely.
2. “They will eat if they are hungry enough”
This advice is actually far from the truth for many with extreme pick eating. There have been some very sad cases of poorly managed picky eating receiving this advice whose parents learnt the hard way. For these children, trying a challenging food brings about so much anxiety and discomfort that indeed, they prefer not to eat at all.
Learning to eat is not a skill we are born with. It is something we learn. Learning can only happen when a child has enough skills. We don’t ask children to read the novels we read as adults over and over until they are competent. Instead we guide them through the process starting at their skill level. First we read simple books to them, then expose them to the alphabet and letter sounds, and slowly build on complexity. The same is true for eating. We cannot expect a child to eat a food if they have never eaten a similar texture or flavour or have trouble tolerating it on the table. It is simply too big a challenge.
3. “They will grow out of it”
Neophobia (fear of new things) is typical in toddlers and preschool aged children. It is normal and appropriate for their developmental age. Typical fussy eating usually diminishes at 5-6 years. Neophobia in problem eating is much more extreme and many do not out grow it.
Untreated extreme picky eating can have many detrimental effects on a child’s life. Their health can suffer due to nutrient deficiencies. Limited variety and anxiety around food can also impact social and emotional development. Children can feel anxious and alienated at get-togethers like parties or sleep overs when there is nothing safe to eat. This may lead to avoidance of social events and isolation.
4. “They will accept the food after 10-15 exposures”
This myth is actually based on some truth. Children need to familiarise themselves with a food to feel comfortable and confident enough to try it. Exposing a child to a food without pressure will increase the chances of them eating a food.
BUT this is no guanantee.
Those children with sensory aversions or food anxieties may need many, many, more exposures to feel comfortable enough to eat a food. AND they still may not eat it.
Being able to eat a food has many more steps. Tolerating a food on the table or being able to explore it with a utensil are examples of steps which need to be in place before a child can tolerate the food close to the mouth (let alone swallow the food).
It is common for parents to feel that pressuring their child to eat is the only way they will get enough or any nutrition. These tactics may even initially seem effective. More often than not, however, these tactics backfire. Children become resistant, more anxious at meal times and their appetite can suffer.
Be considerate without catering
Cooking separate meals for the picky eater is not only time consuming but it removes the opportunity for food exploration and exposure. If a child only receives their favourite foods they are not given the opportunity to build on their feeding skills.
As a general rule make sure there is something on the table your child will eat so they don’t go hungry. This may just be a side of bread or fruit. It is fine to have a child’s favourite dish as the main but don’t offer it as an alternative main. Pair unfamiliar with familiar foods and keep serving unaccepted foods the family enjoys and model eating these.
Hayley is a dietitian who specialises in childhood nutrition and feeding problems. If you would like help with your picky eater contact Hayley here.