Every child will go through some sort of "picky eating" stage or exhibit picky eating tendencies at some point. For the most part, these behaviours (although frustrating) are completely normal. The trickiest part is learning to handle these stages in a patient, calm, and loving way. The way we react to picky eating as parents can either create bigger, more serious eating issues down the road, or can help a child grow her relationship with food in a healthy way.
Kids learn at their own pace. Whether it’s riding a bike, tying shoes, reading, or eating new foods, we as parents need to respect the pace at which our child takes to learn, and practice lots of patience in the process.
Here are some examples of frustrating but normal "picky eating" habits exhibited by toddlers or preschool-aged kids and advice on how to react (and how NOT to react) in order to grow healthy, confident eaters. Breathe easy knowing that these habits are completely normal:
Happily gobbling up your homemade chili one day and then rejecting the leftovers (100% the same food) the next is frustrating and perplexing for parents, but completely normal. Similarly, accepting a previously rejected food out of the blue is also normal. Young children are unpredictable when it comes to eating, and as parents it's important that we don't assume, that we stay calm and rational, and that we react in a way that will nurture long-term healthy eating habits rather than create bigger issues. There are many possible reasons why a child suddenly rejects a meal or food that he normally accepts. Here are some common reasons:
- He's simply not hungry: For whatever reason, your child may not be hungry when a meal or snack is offered--even if it doesn't make sense to you or doesn't fit into the daily schedule. The tricky part is respecting our child's appetite as the parent. We often ask our kids to defy their natural hunger and fullness cues by "having 3 bites" or "just one bite" when really, our kids are being intuitive about their eating. When we start trying to control if and how much our kids eat at meals, our kids actually learn NOT to trust their own hunger and eat according to external cues. It's important to set boundaries around timing of meals and snacks so that eating isn't a free-for-all, and it's just as important to let our kids be in charge of how much they eat at these times.
- He's too distracted: Siblings, screens and toys can distract a child so much that they don't eat. It's important to remove screens and toys from the table so that kids can focus on their food and self-regulate their intake. It's also important to set boundaries around behaviour at the table between siblings and friends. At our house, we make sure that our kids have enough space between eachother so they can't poke, push, or play during meals.
- He's bored of it: My son recently started rejecting his usual oatmeal breakfast that I serve almost every day and that he's loved since he was a baby. Although it broke my heart a little (I never thought he's grow tired of it, and it's such a healthy breakfast!), instead of forcing, bribing or bartering him into eating it, I put on my creative cap and asked him "what would make the oatmeal yummier for you?!" In turns out that "red confetti" (a sprinkling of craisins) made all the difference. Asking this simple question might turn a boring food into a yummy food, or simply adding more variety to meals and snacks can change the game (or changing a small part of it). As adults we grow bored and tired of foods from time to time the difference is that kids are more vocal about it!
This is often seen as a negative or rude reacion, when really it should be positive. The other night, I gave my two-year-old daughter kidney beans with her dinner, and she first reacted by saying "yucky" when she saw them, but then tried putting it in her mouth and then immediately spat it out. Many parents would assume that this meant she hated it--that she just doesn't like beans--when really it was a normal reaction to a new and unfamiliar food.
The fact that she put it in her mouth was huge--she felt comfortable enough to taste it even though it was completely foreign to her. I smiled and said "good job for trying!" and didn't probe her to try it again. I knew that she had just taken the first big step to accepting kidney beans down the road--she just wasn't ready yet.
Give your kids permission to taste a food and then politely spit it out in a napkin if they don't like it. If they do, make sure that you react positively and praise them for being brave and trying something new. It will increase the chances of them accepting it in the future!
Your appetite changes from day to day and meal to meal. So does your child’s! If you notice that your toddler or young child is full or not interested anymore, even after a few bites, don’t force-feed or pressure him to keep going. Your child is respecting his hunger and fullness cues, and so should you.
As frustrating as it is to watch your gourmet meal go to waste, calmly remove the plate, store the food in a container, and save it for later. Tomorrow your child may be famished and ask for seconds. Your child may have “hungry days” where he out-eats adult family members, and “full days” where he doesn’t eat much at all. This is all part of normal eating!
My almost five-year-old son, Ben, often out-eats my husband (who is six feet, two inches tall!), asking for seconds of everything at the table. We try our best not to react, although I am often tempted to say “holy smokes, Ben!” and I’m sure my husband is tempted to give him a high five. We calmly oblige, reminding him to “listen to his tummy,” knowing that he is being intuitive and eating according to his internal hunger cues. I often realize that he had been extra active that day, or perhaps that he is going through a growth spurt. It all seems to even out throughout the week, especially when I notice the following day that he only eats a small portion of breakfast.
Another common eating issue with toddlers and preschoolers is the “food jag,” whereby a child requests the same food (or two foods) over and over again and refuses to eat anything else. It's important to know that this stage is very normal and may happen at many times throughout childhood. As parents, we can't force our children to widen their palates during this finicky stage. And unfortunately, the easiest solution of giving in to your child's desire for the same food daily will only increase the severity and duration of the food jag.
It's important to resist the urge to play "short-order cook" and cater to his narrow palate. Instead, continue to offer a variety of foods at meals and snacks (once in a while including his beloved food), leaving it up to him whether or not he eats it and how much he eats. The process of learning to accept and like a food can be tedious and tiresome, but you will see that it is worth it.
Although extremely frustrating, the phrase "I'm hungry, can I have a snack?" shortly after a meal is fairly normal. The important thing is how we as parents react to these snack requests and that we do what we can to try to avoid them in the future. I've written about why allowing kids to "graze" throughout the day isn't a good idea, and as hard as it is to turn down a snack request (especially when you know that your child actually IS hungry), it's important that we set boundaries and stick with them. Young kids should have eating opportunities every 2-4 hours depending on age--not more frequently than that. Otherwise they won't learn to self-regulate their appetite or intake.
Just the other night, my four-year-old went to bed hungry because he chose not to eat his dinner and instead held out for a bedtime snack, even when I reminded him repeatedly that the "kitchen will be closed" after dinner and that there would be no snack (there was only an hour and a half before bedtime). I made sure to serve a variety of foods at dinner, most of which he enjoyed, and reminded him to eat until his "tummy was full." I did my job as the parent, but my little guy didn't do his job and instead went to bed feeling hungry. Although it was really hard for me to turn his snack request down and stick to my guns, I was happy I did, because the next day he made sure to eat enough dinner so that he wouldn't need a snack before bed.
Read more on how to end the "graze craze."
There is a period of “flavor plasticity” where babies are more likely to accept new flavours (even bitter vegetables!) early on if exposed often, especially in the first few months of starting solids. They are more willing to eat them even though they taste them intensely. Although every child is different, this plasticity period is short, so that’s why toddlers often reject bitter flavours, even if they used to love them. And it gets worse if they’ve never been exposed to those bitter flavours before —there’s more of a chance that they’ll accept bitter foods as a toddler if they’ve been exposed multiple times in infancy. And of course, toddlers and preschoolers have the cognitive ability to react intensely and show displeasure to a taste as compared to infants.
Bitter tastes, in historical times, signaled "toxic" or "unsafe," so this is one of the reasons why children tend to reject them (even when they previously gobbled them up) and why it’s so important to introduce a variety of veggies when first introducing solids.
The good news is that taste buds continue to change, so veggie rejection won't last forever. In the meantime, you can try adding more pleasing flavours to naturally bitter vegetables. Try:
This is very normal, especially when it comes to toddlers and young kids. There could be several reasons why your little one won't sit still--she hasn't had enough exercise or play before her meal, she's tired or distracted, or she's not comfortable at the table for whatever reason.
One of the biggest and most over-looked reasons why kids won't sit still--and therefore often don't eat well--at meals, is because their feet aren't resting on a solid surface. Kristen Yarker, Registered Dietitian write about this over on her blog. She says, "The reason is that while eating is a priority for our bodies, there are two priorities that supersede eating: 1) breathing; and, 2) staying upright (i.e. not falling on our heads). When your child’s feet aren’t resting on something solid, their bodies are required to focus on not falling over. This takes away from the focus on the task of eating. Babies and young children under 3 years of age are still novice eaters and they need to pay full attention to the task of eating. By providing a solid footrest, you’re removing a big source of distraction. "
Kristen suggests using highchairs that are adjustable, or creating a footrest for your child-- inexpensive footstools (usually used at the bathroom sink) work well.