Dear god, why won’t she just eat?
That’s the question I asked myself daily a few years ago. Actually, who’s kidding who. I asked it every stinking time I put food in front of my little one. She was underweight (major source of stress for me) and had zero interest in food. I desperately wanted to know the reasons why kids are picky eaters and how to fix it.
The most painful part was watching her eat (or not eat) next to other little kids her age. Those moms were chatting away, sipping coffee, and smiling while their little ones noshed on a smorgasbord of food.
No bribing, no trickery or iPads to distract them.
They just ate.
However, if those moms looked my way they would see an anxious mother, struggling to smile, while begging a little girl to have a bite. Just one bite of the meal I worked so hard to prepare. The comparisons killed me. And of course, while watching other kids with envy, that question became even more urgent.
If I simply knew the reasons why kids became picky eaters, I could find ways to help her. And, it would help me get through the mealtime misery.
I was already a Certified Nutritionist and knew what to feed a smaller child with a limited appetite. But I lacked what was even more important.
I needed to know what was driving her picky eating, so I could determine how to approach meals.
I wanted to be able to sit down at a table and feel 110% confident that I wasn’t ‘messing her up’ by bribing and begging her to eat. Heck, even I have a few lingering food issues from my childhood and I don’t want to be the reason my girls feel the need to eat everything on their plate. Or feel bad for eating a piece of chocolate cake.
Thus the research began, and I obtained Certifications in children’s feeding while digging into the research on ‘picky eating’. It was a long process of learning and trying, but it was eye-opening.
That feeling of not knowing why consumed me for too long. I was her mom and needed to trust myself at meals. I finally did.
But it all started with understanding the why behind her picky eating behaviours.
5 Reasons Why Kids are Picky
They just aren’t hungry.
It’s as simple as that really. I know I expected my daughter to eat more than she needed. Sitting next to other kids who were demolishing a bowl of pasta didn’t help when Sienna was slowly snacking on a blueberry didn’t help. But the truth is every child’s caloric needs vary depending on a few things. For instance: their activity level, growth rate (are they going through a growth spurt?) and metabolism (some burn slower than others).
Give this a try:
- Ask yourself: If your child doesn’t clear their plate or eat at all, does that mean they should still be hungry? Do we REALLY know exactly how much they need? Did they have enough to eat earlier in the day?
- Take a closer look at your mealtime schedule: Are meals and snacks too close together? Is there snacking happening throughout the day?
- Take 3 minutes to find out why they aren’t hungry and how to boost appetite.
Yup. Blame their DNA. There are people (children included) who fall into a category of “super-tasters”. Researchers can actually determine who is a “super-taster” and will dislike a bitter food more than another person, purely based on their DNA.
A super taster is a person who experiences the sense of taste with far greater intensity than average, with some studies shown an increased sensitivity to bitter tastes. [They suggest that] early exposure to a diversity of flavors enables babies to trust new foods later in life. “Clearly experience is a factor in developing food habits,” says Mennella. - Source
Give this a try:
- Introduce a variety of flavours and foods as young as possible. Even as early as pregnancy and breastfeeding, since flavours are transferred through the placental barrier and breastmilk. If you’re past infant and baby stage, it’s still never too late to bring on flavours. We have to start somewhere.
- Introduce only one new food at a time and rotate every other day. Research shows that putting more than one new (or non-favourite) food at a time in front of our little ones can be overwhelming.
Eating is uncomfortable.
Being a foodie myself, it’s still hard to comprehend that one would forgo eating even when hungry. Ultimately if eating a meal is associated with any pain or discomfort a child will avoid it. That was my daughter to a tee. I didn’t realize it until a year later though. Sienna had poor tongue lateralization (meaning she didn’t have the skills to efficiently chew, and as a result, would pocket food in her mouth). Because that wasn’t challenging enough (kidding), she also had texture issues and would avoid mixed foods (i.e soup or yogurt with pieces of food in it, etc.). As we worked on her sensory and oral motor challenges (among other things) her eating also improved.
Give this a try:
- Rule out contributing medical issues including allergies, reflux, eosinophilic esophagitis (painful allergy-related erosions of the esophagus), etc.
- Rule out or address sensory issues and/or oral motor challenges.
The pressure is on.
Around the age 18 months or so, our kids develop into these adorable little people with a not-so-adorable need for independence. They want to feel a sense of control of their surroundings - from what they wear (even if it doesn’t match) to what they eat (even if it means not eating). If they feel a smidgen of pressure coming from their parents they can get their backs up. Getting upset with our kids at meals triggers a fight or flight response in them and ultimately shuts down their appetite.
Have you every noticed your child eat something new when you’re not looking over their shoulder, bribing with cookies, threatening with toys, or just simply saying “have one more bite”? These are all forms of ‘pressure’ in the eyes of our little ones. Before studying children’s eating in depth, I used all of these innocent (so I thought) tactics, only realizing afterwards that they were counterproductive.
Give this a try:
- At the next meal, say nothing and do nothing except plop that delicious meal in the middle of the table and ENJOY it.
- No bribing, no nudging, and no iPads. It’s going to be super hard but stay strong and remind yourself that these actions (bribing, etc) can have longer lasting and negative impacts on their health.
Researchers have found that kids who are reminded to eat (prompting) and pushed to eat more (pressuring) may indeed eat more, and perhaps too much. This can be a contributor to the development of overweight and obesity. - Source
They need to poop.
No one likes to talk about bowel movements, but what goes out affects what comes in. If a child isn’t pooping regularly there’s a good chance things are backed up in their little tummies. If you’ve ever been constipated you know it’s uncomfortable and filling up your belly with food isn’t all that appealing. So helping them to keep things moving will also improve their desire to eat.
Give this a try:
- Ensure they have a bowel movement at least once every day or two on average and/or that they are soft but formed (no pebbles).
- If you suspect a lack of fluids, keep a cup of water (not juice) within arms reach. That said, constipation isn’t always a result of lack of fluids (or fibre) as we expect.
- Consider whether the constipation is a result of a recent transition (i.e. new school) or anxiety/fear or pain associated with pooping. Both of these emotional triggers can translate to a child who resists going number two. There are books that can help with this (for Canadians and non-Canadians).
Regardless of the reason why our little ones are picky eaters, know that this doesn’t have to be forever. Our kids want to enjoy food as much as we want them to. They just might need a little help to get there.