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Having a child who is a picky eater is incredibly frustrating. Maybe they’ll only eat the same handful of foods, maybe they’ll object to eating something they loved yesterday, maybe they’ll refuse to eat anything altogether. Try as you might, it feels like there’s nothing you can do to change the ways of your stubborn little one.
Why do children become picky eaters?
There are many reasons why children suddenly become picky eaters – and on most occasions, it is sudden and usually occurs between the ages of 18 months and four. Children have a more sensitive palate, so certain foods that seem tolerable or ‘bland’ to you, will be too strong for them, or the texture might put them off.
The toddler years are also a time when your child is determined to show their independence. Refusing or controlling their food and meal times is a key way for them to do this.
Children also love routine and consistency, so new foods might make them feel unsettled and they will often be naturally reluctant to try them until they are used to the sight, smell or feeling of them.
And then also, there’s the argument that it’s an innate sense that mankind developed; to keep away from new foods until we know they are safe.
What can parents do about it?
In most cases, the pickiness usually starts to fade as your child reaches the age of 5, but during those crucial early years in between, when your child is developing and you feel immense pressure to be the best parent you can be, it can be concerning when your child doesn’t seem to be eating enough or getting the nutrients they need.
If you are worried about your child’s weight, development or general health, always see a doctor or speak to a specialist. Otherwise, you will just have to muster a lot of patience and try a few of these techniques.
Time and space
Although it might feel like your child could happily go days without eating more than a few bites, children know when they are hungry and will usually eat if they are given the freedom and space to do so.
Forcing them to eat what you say, when you say, you’ll create negative connotations that may put them off eating altogether. Instead, be more relaxed about your routine and suss out when your child gets hungry during the day without pressing them with questions like ‘are you hungry?’, ‘do you want to eat something now?’
If they don’t clean the plate or even make too much of a dent, resist the urge to make them finish every bite. Don’t get angry, don’t mention it – just be kind and patient.
Go buffet style
If you ask your child ‘what do you want to eat for dinner?’ this can be an overwhelming question and they will just resort back to the foods they are comfortable with, thus perpetuating the problem. Instead, you choose what your child will have for breakfast, lunch or dinner but present a variety of foods on the plate in a buffet style and explain what each food is without offering it directly to them.
Children often refuse food to assert their independence. To combat this, give them independence in other areas of their life to prevent them acting out at meal times. A great way to do this is to let them help you prepare meals. Give them small amounts of safe responsibility around food, to create more positive feelings.
Just a taste
When you’re introducing a new food, don’t make a big deal of it and certainly don’t load your child’s plate full of it. This can seem like an attack to them. Give them a small taste if they are willing and let them ask for more. Don’t even ask if they liked it or disliked it, put the ball in their court and give them control.
Educate your child about different foods, their benefits and why we eat them. Children are naturally curious and will be interested to know where foods come from and how they help our bodies. Don’t split foods into ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ or ‘good’ and ‘bad’, as this can create negative emotions around food into later life.
Sensory food play
If your little one seems particularly sensitive to how foods look or feel, incorporate food into play. Use dry pasta for arts and crafts, make musical instruments like shakers out of rice, use potatoes to do some paint printing. This is simply a way to get your child more familiar with different foods.
Little and often
Sitting at a table to eat a big plateful of food may seem like too much for a little toddler, who can’t even sit still for more than two minutes at the best of times. Although it is good to start early with creating a routine around family meal times, if your child is having issues with food, be a bit more relaxed about it – at least for a while. Remember that a toddler’s portion sizes are much smaller than yours. So while, on the surface it may not look like they’re eating much, chances are, they’re getting enough for their little bodies.
Slow and steady wins the race
Changes will not happen overnight. It could take days, weeks or months to see any difference. However long it takes, strive to be patient and understanding. Don’t put unnecessary pressure on yourself or compare your experience to another parent’s. Every child is different and operates at their own pace.
Top foods for picky eaters to try
- Organic peanut butter – with apples, bananas or any fruit they enjoy
- Icy grapes – cut into small pieces to prevent choking
- Hummus – with carrot sticks, raw peppers or even bread sticks
- Sweet potato fries
- Shepherd’s pie
See our list of 25 meal ideas for toddlers.
What are your top tips for picky eaters? Let us know in the comments below. Alternatively, you can discuss it on social media using the hashtag #myIrishlife.
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