Dr. Helena Taylor Clinic

Have a Picky Eater Child? Top 10 Ways to Nurture a Healthy Appetite

Picky eater

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Did you know? Nearly a quarter to a third of toddlers and preschoolers are often labelled as ‘picky eaters’ by their parents. Yet, here’s the fascinating twist: most of these little ones have perfectly healthy appetites that align with their age and growth.

Picky eating in children: an introduction

Ah, the finicky eater – a challenge that many parents around the world are intimately familiar with. If you’ve ever witnessed your child turn their nose up at a perfectly good meal or engage in a standoff with a plate of broccoli, you’re certainly not alone. Welcome to the intriguing realm of picky eating habits in children, a journey that can sometimes feel like a culinary rollercoaster, filled with twists, turns, and unexpected preferences. A paediatrician, family doctors and paediatric nutritionist can play a vital role in helping parents manage feeding challenges and avoid turning mealtimes into battles or reinforcing eating disorders.

Definition of a picky eater

A picky eater, often referred to as a selective eater, is a person, typically a child, who displays a reluctance or aversion to trying or consuming a wide variety of foods that are both familiar and unfamiliar. Picky eaters often have strong preferences for certain textures, flavours, or types of food and may be hesitant or resistant to trying new or unfamiliar foods. This behaviour can sometimes lead to a limited and repetitive diet, potentially resulting in challenges with obtaining a balanced and diverse nutritional intake. Picky eating is a common phase in childhood development, but it can also persist into adulthood in some cases.

Navigating the picky eating phase: recognizing when your child’s taste buds change

During the phase of toddlerhood where autonomy is being established, children tend to lean towards self-feeding and develop selective eating preferences. If they feel pressured or forced to eat, their need for independence may lead to resistance against eating. Trying to trick your picky eater child into eating can soon turn into a dinner table dance. The child maybe left devoid of healthy meals.

Young children commonly exhibit neophobia, displaying aversion to new foods which is common in young children as a protective mechanism against potentially harmful substances. Neophobia will often leads parents to perceive them as picky eaters. Despite initial negative reactions, repeated neutral exposure over time helps them become more accepting of these new foods. These are usually foods with new textures, colour or taste and can affect the eating habits in future as well.

Excessive consumption of beverages like milk or fruit juice, along with sweets, can diminish a child’s appetite for nutritious foods, potentially leading to inadequate growth and nourishment. Frequent “grazing” between planned meals and snacks can also disrupt a child’s appetite and eating habits.

Many picky eaters develop their eating habits over time and are not inherently selective from birth. Attempts by parents to encourage small eaters to consume more food might have an opposite effect. Caregivers might unknowingly push children to eat, unaware of the natural decrease in appetite that occurs between ages one and five. Appetite fluctuations are common during this developmental stage.

Although toddlers and preschoolers differ in their mealtime consumption, their overall daily energy intake remains relatively steady. Generally, healthy children demonstrate a notable ability to maintain their energy balance by consuming a variety of nutritious foods. Parents who perceive their child as unusually small or nutritionally at risk are more prone to overreact to changes in their child’s appetite.

The psychology of a picky eater

In certain cases, refusal to eat may be a way for a child to seek attention or signify underlying difficulties within the parent-child relationship. Research indicates a connection between a family’s dysfunctional environment and children’s dietary choices.

Improper feeding techniques can also contribute to food refusal. Approaches such as threats, scolding, or coercion tend to decrease food intake. On the other hand, positive actions like verbal praise or affectionate looks can foster the development of food preferences.

Children often emulate those around them. Family members and peers serve as role models, influencing food preferences and eating habits. If someone within the family or a peer rejects a specific food, a toddler might mimic this behavior. Both family and peer role modeling not only encourage hesitant eaters but also expand the range of accepted foods.

The ambiance during mealtime significantly impacts a child’s eating behavior. Providing guidance and understanding yields positive outcomes, whereas distractions and conflicts have adverse effects. Imposing mealtime behaviors or table manners that are inappropriate for the child’s age can also disrupt their eating habits.

Managing your picky eater child

When it comes to feeding kids, parents pick the foods and decide when to eat, but kids choose how much to eat. So, parents, make sure to choose healthy foods that match your child’s age and tastes. Stick to regular meal and snack times, but let your child decide how much and what they want to eat. Be flexible and open to their food likes and dislikes, as long as they are growing well. Remember, toddlers can have big appetite swings, but they usually keep growing just fine!

Strategies for managing picky eaters involve creating a supportive and positive eating environment while gradually expanding the child’s food preferences.

Here are some effective approaches:

  1. Offer a variety of foods
    Present a range of nutritious foods with different textures, colors, and flavors to expose the child to new options. Arrange foods creatively on the plate or use fun utensils to make eating a more engaging experience. While encouraging a diverse diet, respect the child’s preferences and allow some flexibility in their choices.
  2. Be patient and persistent
    Introduce new foods multiple times, as it may take several attempts before a child accepts them. Introduce them in small quantities that match the child’s age and appetite to reduce any overwhelming reactions. Minimise sugary drinks between meals, as they can fill up the child’s stomach and reduce appetite for nutritious foods.
  3. Model healthy eating:
    Set a positive example by eating a diverse and balanced diet yourself. Children often mimic the eating behaviors of adults.
  4. Avoid pressure
    Avoid forcing or pressuring the child to eat. Allow them to decide how much to eat from the foods provided. A toddler’s duration at the table should be around 20 minutes. Once the mealtime is over, it is advisable to clear away all food, reserving it to be reintroduced during the next scheduled meal or snack. The likelihood of a subsequent meal being declined is minimal.
  5. Create a pleasant mealtime environment
    Make mealtimes enjoyable and relaxed, without distractions like screens, toys, books or stress-inducing conversations. Sharing meals with the family offers toddlers an enjoyable social encounter and a chance to learn through observation. Children appreciate the companionship of their family members and rely on their presence to have positive eating experiences. Whenever feasible, it is beneficial for families to dine together.
  6. Involve children in meal preparation
    Let children participate in selecting and preparing meals. This can foster a sense of ownership and curiosity about food.
  7. Set regular meal and snack times
    Establish a consistent eating schedule to regulate hunger and encourage appetite during meals.
  8. Offer dips and sauces
    Providing healthy dips or sauces can make unfamiliar foods more appealing and encourage tasting.
  9. Praise positive behavior
    Offer positive reinforcement when the child tries new foods or makes healthy choices.
  10. Consult a professional
    If concerns persist or if picky eating severely affects a child’s growth and nutrition, consult a pediatrician or a registered dietitian for guidance.

As we have explored, a child’s selective eating habits often sprout from a blend of developmental milestones, sensory sensitivities, and environmental cues. Yet, with patience, understanding, and a touch of creativity, we can cultivate a positive relationship between our little ones and the food.

Remember, it is not just about the plate, but the experience.

At Helena Taylor Clinic, we understand the joys and challenges of parenting, especially when it comes to helping your child overcome picky eating habits. Our dedicated team of experts is here to support you every step of the way. We believe that nourishing your child’s healthy relationship with food is a journey, and we are committed to providing you with the guidance, resources, and expertise needed to navigate it successfully. Together, we can empower both you and your child to embrace a positive and nutritious approach to eating, ensuring they grow up strong, happy, and confident.


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