Picky eating is common among children. In some homes, mealtime is a tough time for mothers. Why? The child often stays away from the table during meal times, running around or playing because of his lack of interest in eating certain foods. Some just prefer drinking beverages such as milk or juices all day.
Should you stop trying if your child says ‘No’ to some foods? Not at all! This is the conclusion of a new study published recently in the journal, Obesity Reviews.
According to the authors, ‘Don’t give up!’ Children often need repeated exposures to the new foods before they accept it fully. In countries, where resources are limited, parents or caregivers may easily become frustrated when a child refuses to eat foods that are readily available locally.
In a statement by University of Buffalo, the authors led by Dr Anzman-Frasca, provided more information on why they embarked on the study and what were their main findings:
“The goal was to review the literature in order to make recommendations to parents and caregivers on how they can best encourage children’s healthy eating starting as early as possible,” said Anzman-Frasca.
Like mother, like baby
The researchers based their recommendations on data gathered from more than 40 peer-reviewed studies on how infants and young children develop preferences for healthy foods, especially vegetables and fruits.
Healthy eating starts during pregnancy, the authors point out. “Flavors of Mom’s diet reach the child in utero,” said Anzman-Frasca, “so if she’s eating a healthy diet, the fetus does get exposed to those flavors, getting the child used to them.”
After birth, if the mother breastfeeds, the baby also benefits from exposure to flavors from her healthy diet through the breastmilk.
These early exposures familiarize the baby with specific flavors as well as the experience of variety and set the stage for later acceptance of healthy flavors in solid foods.
Serve healthy foods, repeat, serve healthy foods, repeat
Even after infancy, repeatedly exposing children to foods that they previously rejected can help them to accept and like the food.
“This method of simply repeating the child’s exposure to healthy foods has a robust evidence base behind it,” Anzman-Frasca said. “There are many studies with preschoolers who start out not liking red peppers or squash, for example, but after five to six sessions where these foods are repeatedly offered, they end up liking them.”
However, the review pointed out, one study has found that in low-income homes, parents do not serve previously rejected foods because of the desire not to waste food. The authors call for interventions to promote repeated exposure to healthy foods in these environments, while addressing challenges parents face.
“Overall, based on all the studies we reviewed, our strongest recommendation to parents and caregivers is ‘don’t give up!’” Anzman-Frasca emphasized.
Picky eating occurs in 20 to 50% of children in many countries. Typically, the child prefers ”eating a limited amount of food, refusing food (particularly fruits and vegetables), being unwilling to try new foods, accepting only a few types of food, preferring drinks, sweets or snacks over food. ”
It is important to note that children may refuse food for other reasons such pain when swallowing, choking or developmental challenges. Clearly, picky eating may leave the child nutritionally deficient. In some cases, vitamins may be needed to supplement food intake.
What more can you do to help the picky eater? Consider the following tips from experts:
- Feed to encourage appetite – (a) serve small meals and snacks at consistent times of the day, with 2–3 hours between each meal and snack time, allowing the child to become hungry before the next meal. Young children feel most comfortable with scheduled mealtimes; (b) offer milk, nutritional beverages, juice, soup or water at the end of the meal or snack, and not before, in order to prevent filling their stomachs.
- Avoid distraction – (a) seat children at a table for meals and snacks. A comfortable position for eating is one in which the table is at the stomach level of the child. Therefore, use a highchair or booster if necessary; (b) avoid allowing television, tablets, toys, electronics or books at mealtimes, as this takes away the experience of eating. Instead, engage children using food or by allowing children to self-feed.
- Families should eat together – (a) eat together as a family to allow interaction and bonding; (b) use family mealtimes as an opportunity to teach healthy eating habits and good table manners to children.
- Encourage independent feeding – allow for food spillage and age-appropriate mess during mealtimes; cover the floor if it makes cleaning up after meals easier.
- Systematically introduce new food – (a) provide some of the child’s favourite foods together with a small amount of new food; (b) if the child refuses a new food, offer just one bite of the new food without tricking, hiding, bribing or forcing. If the child continues to refuse after three attempts, do not force the child. The caregiver can attempt to reintroduce the new food after a few days or weeks. A child’s preference often changes, although it can take up to ten exposures before the child accepts the food.
- Limit duration – (a) eating should begin within 15 mins of the start of the meal; (b) meals should last no longer than 20–30 mins; (c) when the meal is over, all food should be removed and only be offered again at the next planned meal. Caregivers should not become a short order cook.
- Serve age-appropriate food – (a) offer food appropriate for the child’s oral motor development; (b) use reasonably small helpings (e.g. size of the child’s fist). A bigger serving can be offered, according to the child’s appetite.
- Maintain a neutral attitude during feeding time – (a) do not get overly excited or animated such as the use of ‘flying airplanes’ into the child’s mouth; (b) never become or even appear angry; (c) bribes, threats or punishments have no role in healthy eating.
Which of these tips have you found effective in managing picky eating? Please leave your comments below!