Tips for feeding picky eaters
Editor’s note: This article is adapted and updated from one that appeared in Texas Child Care Quarterly in Winter 1996 written by Sherry Clark.
What’s a picky eater? Why does the challenging behavior develop? What can be done?
Rather than engaging in a power struggle over food, consider the need for young children to learn how to judge what and how much they eat—in spite of the frustration it causes adults. Most of the time when adults try to overrule children’s natural eating cues, the eating habits become worse, not better.
When we force, cajole, entice, bribe, or trick children into eating, we’ve set the stage for a long-term battle, one we’re likely to lose. The refusal of food becomes more intense and the issue becomes a contest of wills, not nutrition.
Children can regulate food intake
Babies know how much they need to eat and are able to take the lead with feeding routines. Newborns have two reflexes that make feeding possible: rooting and sucking. Rooting describes the movement of a baby’s head, with open mouth, toward a nipple if it lightly touches one of their cheeks. Sucking describes the ability to use suction to hold a nipple in the mouth and swallow reflexively. These reflexes gradually disappear over the first four months and are replaced by deliberate, voluntary control over swallowing, sucking, and tongue movement.
There is no evidence that solid food offers any nutritional benefit for babies younger than 4 months. Newborns cannot chew, nor can they manipulate the tongue to push food toward the throat, so the early introduction of solid foods makes choking more likely. Additionally, the newborn’s kidneys are too immature to handle the wastes of solid foods, making digestive issues more likely than in babies on a simple breast milk or formula diet.
From even this early stage, babies give signals when they have had enough food. They signal that they feel full and communicate their desire to stop eating. Watch for these cues:
drawing the head away from the nipple
biting the nipple
spitting out the nipple
releasing the nipple and turning the head
smiling and babbling
clamping the lips shut
increasing attention to the surroundings
Toddlers are typically cautious about trying new foods and are always eager to assert their independence and autonomy—even when taking the opportunity to refuse a favorite food. Introduce new foods gradually, but allow the toddlers to approach the new food in their own way and on their own schedule. Make mealtimes more pleasant by not putting pressure on children to have “Just one bite.” Respect their tempo and remember that sensory input is essential to their cognitive development. This means that they may want to touch, squeeze, mash, or otherwise manipulate the new food before tasting it. They will respond to smell and color as much as taste. Respect their wishes when they indicate that they’ve had enough or aren’t interested in eating more.
By about 30 months, a child’s growth slows from the more rapid pace of infancy. A slower growth rate means smaller appetite. Be alert to this change and respond by offering smaller portions. Coupled with slower physical growth, young children begin to associate the social and emotional aspects of eating. They are developing more self-control and independence. They are physically able to manipulate a spoon and fork, pour milk from a pitcher without spilling, and engage in conversation.
Appetite is erratic and food habits easily transmitted. A 4-year-old, for example, may learn to refuse mashed potatoes because her friend does. Similarly, your can of soda on the table may make a child reject the offered milk.
Toddlers and preschoolers are on developmental track when they begin to express their preferences and expectations about food. Habits are being formed that may affect the child’s lifelong relationship with food. As you temper your behavior from being too directive—“Clean your plate before you have seconds”—be equally cautious about being too permissive—allowing, for example, a child to experiment with adding salt, sugar, or butter to whatever food is on the plate.
A 2002 study of preschool nutrition in the United States found that most infants (as young as 4 to 6 months) and toddlers consume too many calories and eat inappropriate foods. French fries are the most commonly consumed vegetable by age 2 (Briefel et al. 2004). Clearly this is not the result of children shopping and cooking for themselves. These findings can be altered through the attention and deliberate action of the adults who make and offer food choices.
It’s normal for a child’s appetite to vary from day to day. Three-year-old Jennifer may eat little for several days and then make up for it by eating twice as much as usual in a single day. Children, like adults, change food preferences easily. Five-year-old Octavio, who staunchly refused carrots in the past, may decide today that orange is the best food color ever.
A poor appetite can indicate that something is wrong. Perhaps the child has a mild illness or is developing an infection. Be sure to check for other physical symptoms like an elevated temperature or uncharacteristic lethargy. Appetite changes can also be triggered by emotional upset like the death of a pet or a new baby in the house. Even the weather—think Texas in the summer—can impact appetite and food interests.
Know that some children simply have less interest in food than other children. Another benefit of observation is in learning the habits, preferences, and triggers that relate to food as much as other developmental areas.
Working to ensure good nutrition
When children are finicky about eating, we often worry whether they are getting enough of the nutrients needed for optimal health. Actually we can relax when we recognize how little food children really need. Too often we judge what a child should be eating by the quantities adults consume.
Children have small stomachs and require small serving sizes. Additionally, children need to eat more frequently than adults: three meals plus morning and afternoon snacks. By serving nutritious meals and snacks, you help ensure that children are getting the nutrients they need. Use the information at www.buildhealthykids.com/servingsizes.html to help guide your nutrition sources and portion sizes for children of different ages.
Managing common battle cries
Power struggles are never fun. Avoiding the battle is a better strategy. Modify these responses and tactics to the battle cries of the picky eaters in your care.
“No milk!” Calcium and vitamin D in milk are essential to good nutrition. But a glass of milk isn’t everyone’s favorite. Instead you can try the following:
Add other milk products like cheese and yogurt to the menu.
Use milk in place of water in soups and cooked grains.
Add powdered milk to dishes.
Prepare other calcium-rich foods including legumes and greens.
“Yuck. I hate mushy vegetables.” The texture of specific foods can dictate their appeal. Some people like raw asparagus; others demand stalks that are limp and droopy. Children often prefer lightly cooked, crisp vegetables rather than overcooked, unrecognizable, mushy ones. Respect children’s preferences by varying vegetable preparation. Serve steamed beans one day and stewed beans another.
A word of caution: Young children can choke on small chunky foods like grapes, cherry tomatoes, and raw, hard foods like carrots, cauliflower, and broccoli. Make sure these are cut into small pieces and are easy to swallow.
“I don’t want spaghetti. I want potatoes.” You aren’t a short-order cook. Preparing special foods delays a child’s willingness to try what’s offered. Toddlers, for example, typically take a long time to try new foods but continuing to substitute old favorites for something new narrows opportunities for exploration and discovery.
With food, as with other areas of early care and education, you can help alleviate or quiet battles by using the following tools of positive guidance:
Use redirection. Help children overcome food aversions by letting them help do the preparation. Being involved in the preparing a meal often makes the food more attractive. Try, for instance, making vegetable soup with the vegetable haters. Ask parents to send one vegetable (potato, carrot, onion, turnip, or a can of corn, for example) and organize the group to cut, cook, and enjoy.
Offer choices. Choices give children control and build their sense of independence but remember, you are in control. Make sure the choices you offer are nutritious ones. Offer both zucchini and cucumber sticks for snack and let the children choose their preference—with or without yogurt dip.
Anticipate. Daily events in the classroom and in the world impact our food needs and interests. Sometimes it’s clear that the best food is a simple grilled cheese sandwich or a banana with peanut butter. Each of us can identify a comfort food, the food we seek when we feel overwhelmed by stress and daily demands. Afford children the same comfort when you know it’s been a particularly bad day.
Model the behavior you’d like to see. Eating with children gives them an opportunity to watch a respected adult make choices and discover preferences. When lunch includes an eggplant casserole, it’s OK to let children know that you haven’t liked eggplant in the past but are willing to try it again. Never pass up an opportunity to discuss food, food production, and nutrition with the children in your care.
The bottom line
Having a picky eater in your care can be frustrating and worrisome. It helps to know that children’s bodies tell them how much to eat when we give them time and opportunity to discover the sensations of hunger and satiety (fullness). Adults need to be sensitive to children’s messages about eating and respond appropriately by providing a variety of nutritious meals and snacks.
Help children discover the lifelong skill of responding to hunger with a nutritious meal and leaving the meal with that hunger is satisfied.
Briefel, Ronette; Kathleen Reidy; Vatsala Karwe; and Barbara Deveney. 2004. Feeding infants and toddlers study: Improvements needed in meeting infant feeding recommendations. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 104 (January).
Nitzke, Susan; Dave Riley; Ann Ramminger; and Georgine Jacobs. 2010. Rethinking Nutrition: Connecting Science and Practice in Early Childhood Settings. St. Paul: Redleaf Press.
U.S. Department of Agriculture. Build healthy kids: Nutrition 101. Retrieved May 10. 2014 at www.buildhealthykids.com/basics.html.