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Picky Eaters

By Heidi M. Johnson, M.D.

Boy refusing to eat during mealtime.

Is your child refusing to eat certain foods and more interested in making art during mealtime? You are not alone. Around 20 percent of children become picky eaters and many parents struggle with giving the proper variety and nutrition to their child. Most eating habits are formed during the preschool years and start as early as ages 2 or 3.

Common signs of a picky eater:

  • Complaining or whining about food served
  • Refusing to eat certain foods
  • Pushing and nudging food on the plate
  • Hiding, throwing away or sneaking food to household pets or other family individuals
  • Gagging or vomiting

Causes

While everyone has preferences with foods and may dislike certain foods, a picky eater has many. Some underlying factors may be:

  • Taste (bitter, spicy, sweet)
  • Texture (crunchy, slimy, smooth)
  • Aesthetic (color, shape, size)
  • Smell

A child will challenge food options by picking and choosing and testing power limits with the give and take a parent can endure.

Tips for preventing mealtime battles

Prepare an entrée the family all likes. It is important that there is something constant that everyone can eat during mealtimes. Other dishes can be served that your child may not prefer, so at least having one item a child is willing to eat is a good constant.

Allow occasional substitutes. If your child refuses to eat an entrée you may allow your child to substitute with acceptable items such as a sandwich, cereal, yogurt, a piece of grilled chicken, or pasta. Choose substitutes that meet nutritional needs and spar well with the mealtime dishes. Store substitutes in the refrigerator and stress the importance that although occasional substitutions are acceptable, the child should understand the prepared entrée is normally expected to be eaten during mealtime.

Don't stress too much and respect any food dislikes. Some children may initially dislike certain foods, but as they grow older they may like foods they did not previously like. Vegetables are a common food rejected by children because some are bitter and hard to chew. Fruits and vegetables are from the same food group and can be eaten interchangeably.

Encourage your child to taste new foods. Many tastes are acquired and your child may eventually learn to like certain foods initially refused and associated with dislikes. Research shows it may take seeing other people eat a new food 10 times before they're even willing to taste it, and another 10 times of tasting it before they develop a liking. Allow your child to try food at numerous times in different periods and settings, while introducing new items, gradually with age, as they become more accustomed to different tastes.

Avoid pressure at mealtime by keeping the atmosphere light. Your child may be stubborn and causing pressure around eating can progress to a continual power struggle, enabling picky eating habits. Learning to accept new foods should be gradual and not forced. Make it an important family event by initiating your children into friendly conversations. Tell them about your day and ask about their day. Talk about subjects unrelated to food such as fun upcoming school events, vacation, or timely events. Never discuss your child’s eating habits in their presence and praise efforts of trying new foods.

Complaining and whining is not allowed. Never pressure, beg, bribe, or punish your child to eat because it may interfere with normal eating pleasure. While your child may decline food or push food around the plate, complaining or whining should not be allowed. If needed, give your child an initial warning and if your child persistently disobeys, allow your child to leave the table for a cooling down period. If disruptiveness still occurs, send your child to his or her room and store the food for later when he or she resumes mealtime.

Don’t extend mealtime or argue about dessert or a bedtime snack. Don't keep your child sitting at the dinner table after the rest of the family is done, if they are not done with their plate. This will only cause your child to develop unpleasant associations with mealtime. Eating should be to satisfy a child’s appetite and not reinforce the idea of punishment, every time the plate is not finished. If your child suddenly wants to eat, allow around 5 minutes. Picky eaters should still be allowed desserts if they have not cleaned their plates. Allow your child one small portion of dessert, however, do not permit excessive amounts for your child. If your child complains about bedtime hunger, allow a small plain snack (such as cereal).

Most picky eater problems will eventually fade as the child enters the school system. If your child is not eating and receiving the proper amount of nutrients during mealtime, you may use daily multi-vitamins to supplement areas needed for your child's nutrition and health. If your child is losing excessive weight, vomiting or gagging on foods, has heartburn, or is still refusing to eat continuously, call your child’s pediatrician for further advice.