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Pediatric Dietitian Advice From The Pros

How YOU Can Help Your Picky Eater By Not Jumping To Conclusions!

 

Whether you have a toddler or a teen, nutrition is extremely important for your child’s physical and mental development. I’m sure you’ve seen the research stating that one in every three children is obese. But what are we supposed to do with this information? As parents, all the information and oftentimes conflicting advice on what constitutes “healthy and nutritious” for your child can be overwhelming. And what if we have a kid who just won’t eat nutritious foods?

As an eating disorder specialist and a mom of three girls, I know the challenges that parents and caregivers go through when raising children and trying to feed them healthy foods, while promoting a positive and healthy body image. For some parents, this is not such a big deal, and they allow their kids to eat whatever it is they want without paying attention to the nutritional value. Other parents end up getting in the way of their children by worrying too much about what they are (or aren’t!) eating. Which end of the spectrum do you fall on? To what extent can you actually help your child? Advice from an expert pediatric clinical dietitian — someone who has seen it all! — may help you realize that you aren’t alone, and that your kid isn’t different! Many children experience difficulty eating, and it’s completely normal. However, as a parent you do play a vital role in guiding your child down a healthy path.

It’s important to recognize that picky eating isn’t your fault, it isn’t your child’s fault, and it is completely manageable. Children are growing creatures who experience new senses every single day in their bodies, and that includes in their taste buds! You wouldn’t expect a child to understand what a word is until they are taught to read it (and even after that it takes some time to recognize it on their own), so why would you expect them to understand their sense of taste immediately? Children are sensitive, and they are constantly learning about the world around them. Remember, it’s brand new for them! Our anxieties only worsen the situation. Read on for some advice from professional pediatricians and specialists on how YOU can help your child overcome the boundaries of picky eating and lead them on a lifelong journey to healthy eating!

Normalizing Picky Eating and Learning to Manage Anxiety from your Child’s Fussiness

Below you will find several findings from various pediatricians, eating specialists, and therapists who have either conducted studies on or worked personally with children who are extremely picky eaters. These doctors and therapists have worked closely with stressed and anxious parents who live in fear that their children suffer from eating disorders. The specialists assure these worried parents that excessively picky eating is more normal than you may think in children. Doctors and therapists also stress the importance of remaining calm and not making a huge deal out of a very common childhood trait. They outline the importance of not jumping to conclusions, and not labeling your child’s fussiness. What we as adults may see as being “picky” is often actually just a child experiencing and growing in the world around him or her.

Kristen Lee Campbell, MD is a Pediatrician at St. Louis Children’s Hospital & Instructor of Pediatrics. She is also a mom herself and has a picky eater of her own. Findings from her thesis on fussy eating in children is outlined below.

It’s Completely Natural

According to Dr. Kristen Lee Campbell, children are stubborn creatures by nature, and sometimes they simply decide their mind/body doesn’t want something. This is natural, and can be conditioned and worked with without too much cause for alarm. Just because a child is selective with his or her eating habits, it doesn’t necessarily mean he or she has a disorder. Being an overly picky eater is actually congruent to biology and the natural development of a child’s taste buds and tolerance for certain foods. “It does take time for children to develop the sensory tolerance for certain flavors, spices, textures, and temperatures,” Campbell says. Therefore it is totally natural for a child to be extraordinarily picky and selective with food. You also shouldn’t continually compare your child’s progress with eating habits to others because “the definition of age appropriate foods varies with culture, and a myriad of contexts,” Dr. Campbell explains.

Keep Calm And Keep Cool

Dr. Campbell also encourages parents to keep calm, and keep cool! Children are unbelievably impressionable. Believe it or not, if they sense your anxiety in a situation, they are more likely to experience their own anxiety. It is important to not project your own fears and misconceptions of possible eating disorders onto your child. The last thing that is going to help your little picky eater is a mealtime full of tension, worry, and fear. Children will often do as they see. They are little mimics by nature. Remaining calm, encouraging, and optimistic will only help ease your child’s picky tendencies. They also respond well to visually appealing and fun foods! Dr. Campbell personally knows how difficult this can be for parents, but she urges them to be patient, and remain optimistic.

Dr. Lee Hudson is a Consultant Pediatrician with expertise in feeding and eating disorders. His findings with picky eaters among children are outlined below.

You Are Not Alone

Dr. Lee, first and foremost, points out that parents with picky eaters are not alone! “Picky eating is very common,” he states with confidence. Dr. Lee relays that a study in the Journal Appetite, released in January 2016, evaluated the eating habits of well over 100 children ages 3 to 11. Overall, 39% of children were identified as very picky eaters. It’s common among children, and of course common among parents, to jump to conclusions and begin labeling. However, Dr. Lee stresses the importance of parents remaining calm, and not overanalyzing during a child’s “finicky phase”.

Dr. Faye Powell is a developmental psychologist at the University of Bedfordshire specializing in children’s eating behavior. Dr. Jacqueline Blissett is a reader in childhood eating behavior. Natalie Morris is a lead therapist at Integrated Therapy Solutions’ Feeding Clinic. All three specialists have worked together to study children with picky eating habits, and to assuage anxious parents. Some of their findings and thoughts on picky eaters are below.

Every Child Develops At A Different Pace

Dr. Powell believes that every child is different, and just because your child is not eating as much as his or her sibling or friend did at a certain age, there is no need to jump to the conclusion of an eating disorder. “Child fussiness is largely down to innate differences between kids.” For instance, Dr. Powell mentions that, “Children who have ‘heightened sensory sensitivity’ are much more likely to be fussy eaters. These children are sensitive to different sensory aversions and textures – it can be rather overwhelming. Kids with tactile defensiveness, where they have high oral sensitivity, will be fearful of and not accepting of foods that are different — crunchy, for example.” This doesn’t mean there is something wrong with your child, it doesn’t mean your child has an eating disorder. It simply means every child is innately different, and every child will develop his or her eating tendencies at a different pace. As long as your child is not malnourished or severely underweight in any capacity, this fussy phase is normal, and patience and optimism are key!

It May Just Be How The Food Looks!

r. Powell & Dr. Blissett also say that innately, children are fussier about foods because of how the food may look, such as toast being burned. “As they grow older, food fussiness may be because they are associating that food with something they find ‘disgusting’,” Dr. Blissett says. “If they see worms in the mud, they may associate them looking like spaghetti.” Therefore, it is actually  more normal than you think for a child’s fussy eating habits to develop past the age of 5 or 6. Believe it or not, this shows positive cognitive development, and cognitive function. It just so happens that if your child is a picky eater, their cognitive development is influencing their food fussiness.

Repeated Exposure

Dr. Powell, just like Dr. Lee, stresses the importance of remaining calm throughout your child’s picky eating days. “The key thing to bear in mind when encouraging your child to eat something is to not put any pressure on them,” Dr. Powell says. And that includes the pressure of a hypothesized eating disorder. “All research into food behavior points to putting pressure (including the projection of eating disorders and your own anxiety) on children to eat having a negative impact,” Dr Powell says. “For children who are fussy, ‘repeated exposure’, where you offer the food repeatedly without the pressure to eat it, is really important. Over time, that child will typically begin to accept the food.” The key is remembering that this is something that will happen over time.

Model Behavior

Moreover, Dr. Powell and Dr. Blissett discuss how impressionable children are. They talk about the importance of modeling while coping with your child’s picky eating. “Watching other people and learning through modeling other people’s behavior is so important,” Dr. Blisset says. “In all of our studies, we’ve shown if your child is fussy, the most effective way of getting them to try something new is if you’re eating the same thing and modeling it enthusiastically.”

Be Patient

Most importantly, Dr. Powell and Dr. Blissett encourage parents of picky eaters to be patient. Excessive fussy eating is more normal than many parents believe it to be, and widely affects children up to the age of 11. Even science explains a child’s fussy eating, and how it will eventually begin to cease, as Dr. Powell explains that, “With age, we lose sensory capacity and foods will be tasted less intensively. This is one factor reducing a child’s pickiness.” Therefore it is naturally common for young children to be exceedingly picky. It makes complete sense for a child to be very picky when it comes to foods because of their heightened sense of taste, so don’t stress!

Dr. Blisset and Dr. Powell also relay several cases of parents believing their child’s fussy eating days would never end. However, with patience and a calm demeanor, these parents overcame their fears and anxieties of their children’s projected conditions.

Don’t Project Your Anxiety

Natalie Morris, lead therapist at Integrated Therapy Solutions’ Feeding Clinic, is yet another therapist to stress the importance of parents remaining calm and optimistic throughout a child’s (very natural) journey with picky eating. Natalie explains how she has seen parents get worked up and anxious thinking their child has an eating disorder, and in turn the parents’ anxiety may be hindering a child’s appetite.  Natalie states: ”Feelings of fear and the need to control are significant. When the brain is in this heightened state of anxiety, adrenaline is released and this suppresses the appetite, making the child even less likely to eat.” When these feelings of fear are projected from parent to child, a child’s appetite can be suppressed even further.

Dr. Powell, Dr. Blissett, and Dr. Morris all assure parents with picky eaters that they are not alone, and that, despite their hardships with fussy eating, what they are experiencing is actually a very normal and natural phase for numerous children. They encourage parents to try as best they can to eliminate anxieties and simply “take each day as it comes.”

How Can I Find a Great Pediatric Dietitian Near Me?

A pediatric registered dietitian can be hard to find if you don’t know where to look. Let us help you in your search to help your child! After thorough research and interviews, we match clients with the perfect fit for their needs, whether it is a registered dietitian pediatric specialist, a nutritionist, a coach, or something else entirely. We have a fantastic base of specialists, including, of course, professionals who work in clinical dietitian pediatric nutrition! Check out our website to view our many professional specialists, or email or call us to chat about connecting you to someone who can help change your and your child’s life for the better.

 

10 Tips From A Dietitian Nutritionist for Picky Eaters

 

“I know! She eats anything! I can’t believe it!” your friend exclaims, referring to her 5-year-old daughter as she chomps away on a Salmon Avocado Roll, while your child eats “orange mac and cheese only, Mom, not the white kind!”

Is your friend’s daughter more advanced? More gifted? More mature? Not at all! Your friend’s child is simply different from yours, and that’s OK. 

Feeding troubles affect up to 25% of normally developing children and up to 35% of children with neurodevelopmental disabilities. That’s a lot, right? It’s a common issue to have, but it’s not a problem — it’s something you can work with and overcome together as a family. It’s important for everyone in the family to understand what the “picky eater” is going through, so you can all help out. Many families work with a child dietitian nutritionist to help them along this tricky path, and you may want to, as well. It’s always good to seek help if something isn’t working for you or your family.

Here are 10 tips for families with picky eaters so you can understand where your child is coming from, and help them eat well in the process.

1. Establish A Routine

It’s important to have a routine. As adults, we should also look into this, because it’s been proven that our bodies are happiest when we have a specific schedule to stick to. Studies have shown that children and adults who eat at the same time every day are less likely to be obese and have lower BMIs and blood pressure than people who eat at random points throughout the day. According to Gerda Pot, a professor at King’s College London who was interviewed by the Times, appetite, digestion, and how our body processes food are actually linked to circadian rhythms. This means that our bodies follow a 24-hour pattern in relation to food, just like how our bodies need sleep. It’s so interesting! But it can be so hard to stick to a schedule…

Here are ways to feed your child in a way to encourage their appetite by establishing a routine.

  • Consistency — 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.
  • Beverages After — 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.
  • Duration
    • Eating should begin within 15 mins of the start of the meal.
    • Meals should last no longer than 20–30 mins.
    • When the meal is over, all food should be removed and only be offered again at the next planned meal. You should not become a short order cook!

2. Respect Your Child’s Appetite

Your kid may not be hungry! And even if they are, it’s important to never force or bribe your child into eating. Forcing or bribing creates pressure, which can lead to children eating even less in the long run. Positive tactics like praise or a gift can also create pressure, though. It’s hard to remember this when you’re trying to get your child to eat, but, believe it or not, pressure in any way makes kids like food less.

What are examples of pressuring messages or tactics?

  • Praise (“Oh my gosh, you are such a good boy for eating that! Good job!”)
  • Shame or guilt (“If you loved me then you would eat this…”)
  • Bribes (“If you eat this, I’ll give you a toy after dinner!”)
  • Distraction (“Just watch your favorite TV show while you eat this…”)
  • Threat or force (“You have to eat this or I won’t let you go to that birthday party this weekend.”)
  • Pressuring therapy (“We’re going to have to bring your nutritionist back for therapy if you don’t eat this…”)
  • Nutrition admonitions (“You need more spinach to grow stronger…”)

So what should you do?

  • Start to learn and notice your child’s hunger signals.
  • Allow your child to choose how much or how little of the offered food to eat. Don’t make them clean their plate!
  • Respect your child’s natural inner signals of hunger and fullness. They will change from day to day, so be open for differences!

3. Make Food Fun

Let your child have fun with food! Food is a glorious thing, and we should treat it as such, as long as we aren’t negatively affecting others in the process. Why not enjoy it? Cut pieces of toasts into silly shapes! Make funny faces with fruit on the plate! Make everything on the plate the same color in different shades! When we understand that food is meant to be enjoyed, we’re more apt to be curious for more options. Discover your playful side, too!

Here are some ways to make meals fun for you and your child:

  • Make Faces On Plates — Paint plates at a paint studio or buy plates with faces on them, so you can move the food around to become different parts of a person’s head. Spaghetti can be the hair, broccoli can be the nose, corn can be the teeth, and so on.
  • Be A Monster — Allow kids to act like monsters destroying and devouring their food, as long as they don’t make a mess around the house, or as long as they take responsibility for cleaning up afterwards. The spinach can be the grass in the yard, the chicken can be the house, the pasta can be the fence… and THEY ARE THE MONSTERS EATING THE NEIGHBORHOOD!
  • Grow Your Own Food — This gives kids a chance to see where it came from, and have a hand in the process. When a child plants something and watches it grow from seemingly nothing over a long period of time, it makes it rewarding to try a bite of what they saw growing on the windowsill or in the garden!
  • Watch Cooking Shows Together — Shows like “Master Chef Jr.” are a great way to get kids excited about food. When they see other children their age making food and becoming masters at cooking, it makes it more exciting. Try some of the recipes that you see on the cooking shows together! Notice what excites your kid, and incorporate that meal into your next plan.
  • Use Dips And Spreads — Get kids to eat their fruits and veggies by offering fun things to dip the food into. It’s fun to try different tastes, and the physical movement of dipping gets them connected to their food in a different way.
  • Eat A Rainbow A Day — Focusing on color is a great way to get kids to try different food groups. Encourage them to try to eat something of each color of the rainbow every day, and keep track of what they ate already!
  • Make Up Your Own Food Names — Teach children the proper names of foods, but come up with your own silly words for them, too. A green smoothie can be “monster juice” and pineapple can be a “ferris wheel.” Ask your kids to help you come up with their own funny names!
  • Make Food Into Fun Shapes — Does your kid have an obsession with the solar system? Cut things into stars and circles for the planets! Are they learning to spell? Make the food spell out their name on a plate. Make the meals look fun and enticing, and your child may be more keen to try a bite or two… or more!

4. Be Creative

Systematically introduce new food! Provide some of your child’s favorite foods together with a small amount of new food. 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.) Attempt to reintroduce the new food after a few days or weeks. A child’s preference often changes, even if it takes a few tries!

5. Minimize Distractions

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.

6. Establish Rules

Don’t make a second meal if your child refuses the first one. Having a second option always available, like a salad or a bowl of cereal, takes the pressure off both parent and child, because everyone knows the child will still be able to eat something. (If your kid wants to have a sugary bowl of cereal every night, obviously this option doesn’t work for you!) Your child should know that you will not drop what you’re doing to make them what they want, even if they don’t like what’s offered.

Everyone should wait at the table until they are excused from the table. This means that if your child doesn’t want the meal, they still have to sit at the table until everyone else is finished, whether they eat or not.

Whatever your rules are, stick to them as much as you can.

7. Be Patient

Encourage independent feeding – allow for food spillage and age-appropriate mess during mealtimes; cover the floor if it makes cleaning up after meals easier.

Maintain a neutral attitude during feeding time and never become or even appear angry. Your child shouldn’t associate anger with food!

Be patient with your kid, but also be patient with yourself! This may be a trying experience for both of you, but if you give in to what your child always wants to eat, they won’t grow.

8. No Sweets As A Reward

Dessert is not a reward for eating well. This teaches your child that the dessert is the best part, and they should save room for it. It only increases your child’s desire for sweets! Think of making your family’s typical dessert fruit or yogurt, or only offering dessert once or twice a week.

9. Have Your Child Help

Ask your kid what they want! What vegetables and fruits are they craving? Have them help you pick out healthy food at the grocery store. They can help you prep the meal, too! Many kids love to help wash veggies, set the table, or stir a sauce.

10. Set A Good Example

  • Eat Together As A Family — Families should eat together as often as possible. Three-four times a week is what you should aim for, and if you can get more than that in, great! Keep in mind that this doesn’t have to be dinner. It can be breakfast or lunch. It also doesn’t have to be a home cooked meal! Eating together can include ordering your favorite takeout every once in a while.
  • Try Things You Don’t Like — If there is a particular food that you yourself don’t like, tell your child you are going to try it prepared in a different fashion to see if you like it in a new way. Show your child that people can change, and it’s ok to try things again.
  • You Have To Eat Your Fruits And Veggies, Too! — Don’t tell your child to eat a nutritious meal and then only serve yourself the pasta and tomato sauce. Do what you’re asking your kid to do.

 

Should I seek the help of a CDN Certified Dietitian Nutritionist?

It’s OK to ask for help. There is a certified dietitian nutritionist in your area who has trained for this, and who may know the ups and downs better than you do. Why not seek the help of a professional?

If you want to find a dietitian nutritionist, ask your pediatrician about where to start. They can lead you in the right direction on where to look in your area.

Or, ask us! We’re always happy to help you find a dietitian or nutritionist who’s right for your family. We’ll match you with a professional specialist, and their expertise, knowledge, and planning tools will help you solve your picky eater concerns. Whether you want to seek the advice of a licensed dietitian nutritionist, a therapist, a fitness guru, or a tutor, we’re your one-stop-shop to help you and your entire family — adult or child. Contact us for more information!