“I can’t eat this! The macaroni is touching my nuggets and I don’t like broccoli!” Does this sound familiar? Most parents encounter a child at some point who is picky at meal time.
Many kids, from toddlers to teens and beyond, have aversions to textures, colors, foods touching on the plate, and smells, just to name a few. Further, parents are baffled when their child loved a food last week, but he or she refuses to eat it the next.
Kids are quirky sometimes, but this is usually normal. In fact, there seems to be a continuum of what’s normal when it comes to picky eaters. Picky eating can range from food fears to food aversions and everything in between.
Picky Eating and Mental Health Disorders
Most of the time, picky eating is, in fact, a stage kids go through or a sign of a quirky personality. But sometimes, picky eating can underscore more serious conditions. A study published this summer in Pediatrics has linked picky eating with a higher incidence of mental health disorders.
More specifically, this study, which examines a sample of 917 children ages 24-71 months, finds that moderate to severe selective eating (SE), or picky eating, is associated with the following conditions: anxiety, depression, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
Further, the worse the selective eating became, the more severe were the examples of psychopathological symptoms. In other words, if a child was moderate to severe in his or her picky eating, his or her mental health disturbances were also more severe. In addition, the study finds that kids suffered from these conditions “concurrently and prospectively” – that means the child not only experienced mental health symptoms while being a picky eater in childhood, experts projected that the child would face mental health issues later in adolescence as well.
In reference to these mental health conditions, Nancy Zucker, PhD, one author of the study, confirms the following in the published research: “…the severity of psychological symptoms worsened as SE became more severe.”
Ultimately, Zucker recommends parents take the child to see a health care provider when the picky eating seems to go beyond basic age-appropriate pickiness. This report has captured many parents’ attention as they wonder whether their child is at-risk for the complications that often accompany mental health disorders.
Meal Time Conflict
Meal time conflict can be exhausting to both child and parents. There are numerous reasons kids can be picky at meal times, but sometimes there’s no reason at all. This can complicate matters. Instead of getting to the root cause, it’s often easier to succumb to the child’s demands.
Some parents, tired from a long day or weary from re-living the same daily food battle, resort to begging their kid to eat. Or parents reach for the handy packaged meal they know for sure their kids will eat.
Getting through a meal peacefully is a challenge, then, for many families. Parents can encounter further frustration when they plead for kids to eat “just three more bites,” or when they become short order cooks. It may help when you’re aware of some of the potential causes and triggers of picky eating, as well as tips for addressing this issue.
Possible Reasons for Picky Eating
First, many kids, especially younger ones, have little control in their world, but eating is an arena where they have some degree of choice. Most parents desperately want to ensure their children are getting the nutrition they need, but this can become challenging when a child chooses a few staples, one food group, or a certain color to consume. When these desires collide, a stand-off often occurs. Kids are perceptive and can sense when parents’ voices go an octave higher, thus the face-off begins.
Another factor that can contribute to food struggles and picky eating involves the use of food as a reward or for comfort. At some point, most parents have doled out a sucker to quiet a howling child at the grocery store or served a bowl of ice cream to cheer up a child after losing the big game.
Occasionally using food or treats to shape behavior is generally not problematic; but over time, kids who become accustomed to receiving food for comfort can experience difficulty regulating their emotions. Food can become a coping mechanism, or the primary way to deal with tough emotions or stressful situations. This, of course, can lead to many health and behavioral issues.
In addition, some kids who frequently receive food as a reward for good behavior, potty training, or winning a game, just to name a few, can fail to develop intrinsic motivation. The food or treat motivates them in the short term, but often discourages or slows kids from developing long-term life skills. These experiences consequently follow kids to the dinner table and can manifest in the form of picky eating.
Just a Stage?
Picky eating is a complex issue that involves many variables. Many parents who face daily meal time battles wonder if their child’s behavior is a stage and just how serious the situation is at their household. There is no simple answer, but it may help to rule out further possible reasons. Kids who haven’t developed adequate verbal skills are often unable to tell their parents about the foods that give them an upset stomach or a headache.
A parent might be confused about why their child won’t eat his scrambled eggs, but the child may remember the eggs give him a stomachache and make him feel uncomfortable, so he refuses to eat them. A food allergy or sensitivity may be a contributing factor to a child’s pickiness as well. Often, these factors can be interconnected. But unraveling the complexity of picky eating is no easy task, especially for parents who just need to get dinner on the table so they can shuttle kids to extracurricular activities.
Sometimes the reason for pickiness is more serious in nature: perhaps the child is suffering from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or is experiencing sensory issues. Meal time pickiness can be an early sign of autism as well. These situations require parental observation and sometimes professional assessment.
Dessert: Kids’ Ultimate Goal
When parents and child argue over what to eat and how much, invariably, the “D” word comes up: dessert. However, many parents are sometimes unaware of the potential consequences to come when they bargain about dessert.
A popular policy parents employ is: “clean your plate, then you can have dessert.” While it makes sense to deny a child dessert until he or she eats his or her dinner, many parents inadvertently place more value on the dessert through insisting on a clean plate.
Therefore, the child comes to view the broccoli on the plate as an inconvenient obstacle to the sweet treat. Kids often ask, “How much do I have to eat to get dessert?” This, in turn, can make meal times a negative experience for all parties involved.
Don’t Clean Your Plate!
Conventional wisdom involving children and eating often consists of the “clean your plate” approach. Now experts know this is not necessarily an effective- or healthy- approach. Accordingly, children should be allowed to eat until they feel full.
Parents from past generations, often not wanting to waste food, have urged kids to eat all the food given to them. But, when parents forced kids to clean their plate, this requirement overrides their ability to regulate how full they feel.
When kids can’t sense whether or not they are full, obesity and related health issues can arise. Another issue presented by researchers involves kids’ food choices at school or daycare. When parents force kids to clean their plate or have limited control over what they eat -or don’t eat- at home, the kids can respond by overeating in settings away from home.
In reference to a study on having kids clean their plates, Brian Wansink, PhD, asserts the following, “Preschoolers who are told to clean their plates may also be likely to request larger portions of food when away from home.” Childhood obesity and further meal time battles, then, are potential consequences of this approach. When kids can eat until they feel full, they often develop a more positive attitude toward food.
Stay Calm and Neutral
In addition to allowing children to eat until full, experts recommend parents maintain a neutral demeanor and tone at the table. When parents exclaim, “I’m so happy, you tried the peas!” kids realize they can control their parents’ emotions.
Avoiding emotionally charged language and keeping a calm voice can help stabilize the situation. It is challenging to respond in a non-reactive manner when kids dig their heels in at the table, but avoiding a reaction can be beneficial. Often parent/child stand offs over meal time occur because the child can sense the parent’s intensity via body language, vocal tone, and volume.
Some parents further complicate matters by trying to help mentally prepare the child to try a new food. The parent might tell the child how much she will love the new food or warn her that she might not like it. But only the child can make this decision. Maintaining a neutral stance at meal time will help foster confidence when it comes to food fears, trying a previously rejected food, or introducing something new.
Michelle Borba, Ed. D., author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions, offers this advice:
“Rewarding kids for eating can backfire, and actually decrease your child’s preference for food… In fact, the less you say about the food, the better. Your best response is to stay neutral and calm.”
Tips for Helping Picky Eaters
So what else can parents do to encourage and nurture a positive daily meal time experience, one that will set the tone for years to come? First, it may help to make some goals. For example, parents might strive to get more color on the child’s plate, or perhaps more protein is the ultimate feat. Many parents just want their kids to eat and take in proper nutrition. Consider these tips while striving to improve and support your child at meal time:
-Keep trying. According to Claire Lerner and Rebecca Parlakian, researchers and authors at Zero to Three, “You may have to offer a food between 10 and 15 times before a child will eat it.” Eventually, the zucchini on your child’s plate will make it to his or her mouth!
-Avoid projecting your own dislikes. Just because you don’t like carrots doesn’t mean your child won’t. Serve them anyway!
-It’s worth repeating- stay neutral in voice and demeanor when it comes to meals. Many kids are sensitive to their parents’ tone of voice and body language.
-Limit screen time. Many kids snack while watching TV or playing on the computer or iPad and are consequently not as hungry at meal time. In addition, turn off all electronics during meals. This will allow for family fellowship.
-Avoid the “three more bites” approach. Instead, focus on tasting new foods and allow kids to eat until they are full.
-In reference to dessert, in a calm manner, tell your child: “First we eat our meal, then we can eat a little dessert later if we have room.” Some families don’t force a child to eat or finish the meal, but then dessert is not an option. Some allow a small sweet treat regardless to prove that all foods are equal. Moderation is key.
-Though conventional wisdom tells parents it’s not OK for kids to play with their food, kids are sensory beings. Consider bending this rule and allow your child to explore his or her food once in a while.
-Be a good role model. Don’t expect your child to try kale if you don’t buy it and try it yourself. Remember that kids are watching you and will imitate your behavior. This may very well include tasting a new adventurous food or gobbling up the peas.
-Be mindful of drinks at meal times. Many kids will down their chocolate milk and feel full. Reserve pop/soda and other sugary drinks for special occasions. Water and white milk are the best drink choices for kids.
-Set out a fruit or vegetable plate an hour before dinner. Hungry kids may just help themselves if a colorful plate of food beckons them and is there for the taking.
-Serve kid-friendly meals in terms of portion and presentation. For example, arrange fruit to look like an animal face or mashed potatoes that resemble a volcano.
-Be aware that sneaking vegetables into your child’s food is an option; but it is more effective in the long run to teach kids to choose the carrots over the candy bar. Despite parents having good intentions, many kids are angry when they discover they’ve been tricked.
-Avoid calling your child “picky,” especially in his or her presence. This label can make some kids feel as if they have to live up to the title.
Be a Meal Time Role Model
Bottom line: If your child is a picky eater, you are not alone. Most kids go through this stage at some point. Offer your child choices, allow him or her to help prepare meals, and try to stay calm if meal times become challenging.
Further, model healthy eating habits yourself, try to eat meals as a family, and be grateful for little victories and progress.
Sal Severe, author of “How to Behave So Your Preschooler Will, Too,” offers the following advice regarding families and food: “Your children will tend to eat the way you eat and behave the way you do regarding food. Family patterns teach attitudes about food that stay with your children into adulthood.”
Lastly, if your child is growing and has the necessary energy to play and get through his or her day, chances are he or she is getting proper nutrition. Sometimes kids need caring parents and caregivers to help make this determination.© Copyright 2015 Julie Lemming, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Parenting