Parents become extremely worried when their children to not eat enough or on the other hand eat too much. As a society we are preoccupied with food and the results of eating too little, too much or not healthy enough. Parents communicate this to their children and as a result children internalize irrational beliefs about food.
There are various problems found in children’s eating behavior:
- Sensory Integration Disorder: These children are either hypersensitive to the taste, texture, temperature or smell of food, or there is a lack of sensitivity which prevents them from eating.
- Motor Difficulties: Children with motor difficulties experience problems with chewing or swallowing of food.
- Attention Deficit Disorder: Children with ADD are too easily distracted at mealtimes to remain at the table and finish a meal.
- Overeating: Overeating in children can be due to growth spurts, a fast metabolism, hormonal problems or sometimes as a reaction to a stressor in their lives. This becomes a big concern if the overeating develops into a permanent behaviour pattern, seeing that it would lead to childhood obesity.
Some parents are worried that their children are not getting enough food into their systems. When all medical problems are eliminated, they realize that they have a “picky eater” . Most children will at some stage go through a phase of being picky regarding what they want to eat. Parents should only worry about the amount children eat when they are losing weight or have not gained any weight in six months, have other symptoms of an illness, gags on food or vomits, have thinning hair or develop fine, baby like hair on their bodies.
The battle of “I am not hungry” can become a struggle for control between parents and their child. At mealtime the child claims not to be hungry, but whines in between meals for snacks. Because the parent is worried that their slender child will not get enough nourishment, they resort to threats, bribes and catering to the will of the child. It takes patience to resolve this conflict. Experts give the following tips to help in handling a “picky eater”:
- Adjust your expectations of the portion size you want your child to eat.
- Offer small portions – a full plate can be daunting.
- Snacks are allowed if they are small.
- Limit the amount of juice and cold drinks as they are filling.
- Consider giving your child meals more often per day, but make it mini-meals.
- Plan ahead in order to make the running of mealtime smoother, a hungry child can get distracted if they have to wait too long for their food and then lose interest.
- Involve your child in making decisions of what is for dinner or allow him to help with the preparation of the food.
- Your child should feed himself.
- Refrain from forcing your child to eat. Force will lead to negative associations with food.
- Try to keep mealtimes as pleasant as possible.
- Never nag or praise your child when it concerns food. You do not want to connect an emotional association with food.
- Do not cook on demand. Your child should eat what is offered to him, but make sure that there is at least one thing that your child enjoys.
- Eliminate “gag” foods. If your child had a bout of vomiting after a certain type of food was eaten they may associate the food with feeling ill and feel sick at the prospect of having to eat it.
- Do not eliminate dessert, but keep it nutritious. If dessert is the only thing your child eats, at least you know it is not empty calories.
- Ease your own mind by giving vitamin supplements.
- Be sure to avoid distractions during mealtimes. Switch the TV off and remove all toys from the eating area.
- Take your child on a field trip to the supermarket. Let him push the trolley and make some purchasing decisions.
- Let your child play with plastic dinnerware and toy food. This will create familiarity and comfort with food.
Joan Price believes that both the parent and child share responsibility when it comes to eating behaviour. The parent is responsible for the what, when and where and the child is responsible for the how much or whether. She stresses that if children are allowed to follow their own internal cues of hunger and fullness, obesity can be prevented.
Many picky eaters have a limited range of acceptable foods. Familiarity is the key to acceptance, therefore keep on exposing your child to new foods even if they do not want to eat it. Eventually they might be willing to give it a try. It is important though to reassure him that he is allowed to take it out of his mouth if he does not like it.
Help your child to develop a healthy relationship with food – seeing food for what it is and not what emotional need is fulfilled through it.