The most common questions I get asked as a parent coach revolve around bedtime, eating, and potty training. Young children aren’t in control of much, they are told what to eat, when to go to bed, what to wear, and where to be. It’s no wonder that they dig in on the few things that they can control. The truth is, while we regulate most of a child’s early days, we can’t regulate their bodies. We can’t make a child eat healthy foods, use the toilet, or fall asleep, although we might try, and these are the areas that often become a battleground for children and their caregivers.
Why are some children picky eaters?
Studies show that children’s eating habits have a lot to do with biology, parenting practices, and culture. Young children, compared with adults, are more sensitive to food textures and to bitter foods; some children will resist these foods more than others. Young children are also highly responsive to the taste of sweet foods and biologically wired to seek out calorie-rich foods. Children observe the adults around them and want to eat what you eat. They may refuse new foods until they are introduced to the food many times. Culture also has a bearing on the foods we eat and influences a child’s eating habits. In some cultures, children are given messy foods and encouraged to feed themselves while other children will have a family member spoon feed every bite. All of these variables will influence a child’s eating habits throughout their lives.
What should a parent do?
One of life’s realities is that each child and family are unique, there is no cookie cutter approach that will be right for everyone, but here are some recommendations:
· Introduce foods as your child is developmentally ready. Your child’s pediatrician can help you figure out when to introduce cereals, jar foods, and solids. You can find the CDC recommendations for feeding infants and children at https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/
These are ideal times to introduce new foods because this is the window where children will be most responsive to new tastes and textures. Trying new foods isn’t just about what we eat, infants are also learning how to control their lips, tongue, and swallow reflex. Introducing developmentally appropriate foods during this crucial time will help children with speaking as well as eating. When new foods aren’t introduced at the right time, your child may need extra support developing these skills later on.
· Don’t make food a battle, a reward, or a punishment. Children are learning to listen to their bodies for cues on when they are hungry or thirsty. When food becomes a reward or a punishment, children will look to external factors to determine when and what they will eat. Do you make children finish everything on their plate? Reward good behavior with a bowl of ice cream? Take out a packet of crackers every time your child is bored? If so, you may be tying children’s emotions to food as well as developing some bad eating habits. Ask your child if they are hungry or thirsty and help them recognize their body’s cues. Allow children to stop eating when they are no longer hungry and don’t force them to try everything. Instead of using food as a reward, reward your child with quality time with you and enjoyable experiences, such as going to the zoo or taking a trip to the library.
· Encourage good eating habits. Ensure that children are seated while eating snacks and meals, offer several healthy choices and let your child chose what they would like to eat. Allow children to have extra helpings of a favorite food but pause and ask them if they are still hungry. Don’t make comments about a child’s choices, saying, “Are you sure you want to eat all of that?” or other leading comments will not help children develop healthy choices or feel positive about food and their bodies.
· You don’t need to bring special food for your child every time you take them away from home or make a special meal for your child because of their reluctance to try new foods. Instead, offer lots of choices, include your child’s favorites along with some foods that are new to them. Teach your child how to be polite when visiting someone else’s home. Being gracious about what you have been offered, trying a bite of everything, using good table manners, and saying, “Please,” and “Thank you,” will help children be respectful of other people and other cultures.
· Be mindful of the comments you make. Saying, “I shouldn’t eat this because it will go straight to my hips,” or other comments about food, can trigger an unhealthy mindset. Instead, talk about the foods you enjoy, “I love to start my day with a banana because it gives me energy,” or, “I like the crunch of this carrot.” Model that foods high in sugar or fat are fine to be enjoyed in small amounts. Don’t reward finishing dinner with dessert and don’t make dessert a daily occurrence.
· Children are developing habits that will last a lifetime. I remember that my mom didn’t allow sugary cereals, soda pop, or candy. When I first moved away from home, I gorged myself on French fries and Fruit Loops. However, after my brief affair with hedonism, I returned to eating balanced meals and stopped buying Kool-Aid. I still try to have a good balance between the foods I enjoy the most and the foods I know are good for me. Your child will take the habits they are learning now into adulthood.
One last thought is that we often over-estimate how much our children need to eat. I have witnessed many adults begging their child to take another bite while the child resists. Unless your pediatrician is concerned about your child’s weight, try not to pressure your child to eat more. It’s normal for children to only eat a few bites at some meals. Your child wants independence and autonomy so try to avoid the battle over food.
One of my most cherished traditions is sharing food with friends and family. I have fond memories of making buneulos with my grandmother, sharing pan dulce with my grandfather, and sharing a tub of popcorn with my dad at the movies, along with numerous special meals and festive gatherings. Eating should be a relaxing and enjoyable experience; food is one of the things that ties us together. Try to adopt a laid-back attitude towards food and enjoy meals with children, make these special memories that your child will remember for a lifetime.
Sky Earth youngblood, Parenting coach
Writer, Professional Certified Life Coach, and parent and child educator with over twenty years’ experience in the field of early childhood education, helping parents understand child development to find solutions to parenting concerns.