In a recent review on fussy eating in children, published in the journal Appetite, researchers believe that although there’s a whole host of reasons for picky eating. Some of the main factors include:
- Your child’s age (close to 40% of kids between the ages of two and six are fussy eaters).
- Certain personality traits (such as the need to be independent).
- The pressure to eat (children quickly notice their parent’s or teacher’s anxiety around whether they eat or not, and some children will refuse to try new foods for this reason). To combat this, make your child’s mealtimes a pleasant, low-key experience. Avoid distractions such as the TV or siblings playing nearby, as this may distract your toddler from eating his food.
Registered dietician Jeske Wellmann also believes that kids can be fussy eaters because:
- During the toddler years, your child is experiencing a normal slowdown in growth from his baby years, so he needs fewer calories.
- Children don’t like being rushed during mealtimes. These days, parents are always in a rush to get somewhere and this fast-pace lifestyle can have a negative effect on how much or how little your toddler eats at one sitting.
- Changes in your toddler’s environments, like starting a new school or moving to a new house can also influence his eating patterns.
- The introduction of new foods can lead to food strikes, as your child may not embrace new tastes. It’s important to introduce new foods slowly, and not too many contrasting flavours at a time.
- Drinking a lot of milk and juice during the day could influence your child’s appetite. If you suspect this might be happening, ditch the juice and milk and stick to water.
- Your child could have eaten a big lunch at school, so simply isn’t hungry for supper. Always ask how you child ate when you collect from school so you can get a sense of his overall calorie intake.
- Children sometimes eat a lot of sweets and snacks during the day, which is why they don’t want to eat proper food or can’t eat a full meal. Limit the amount of processed foods your child eats and stick to fresh, home-made, healthy meals and snacks.
- How you choose to feed your child might also influence if and how much he eats. For instance, many kids don’t enjoy being fed and prefer to eat on their own. Others may be given a variety of foods to try, but simply aren’t interested in eating – because they’re busy playing or watching TV.
Could it be tactile defensiveness?
Tactile defensiveness is something to consider if you have a fussy eater. According to the Dyspraxia Foundation, tactile defensiveness in children is a sensory problem caused by the brain’s inability to process and use information properly through the senses. This can lead to a negative behavioural or emotional response to something in the environment like food, grass, sand, water, clothing or messy play activities such as painting. When it comes to food, researchers from the University of Port Elizabeth discovered that children with tactile defensiveness generally have a poor appetite and don’t respond well to food in general.
These children will also:
- Hesitate to eat unfamiliar foods
- Avoid eating at other people’s houses
- Refuse certain foods because of the smell and temperature
- Have a problem eating vegetables and often gag when eating.
If you suspect your child has tactile defensiveness or elements of it, see an Occupational Therapist who will work with your child and help him to regulate his responses to foods and other environmental factors.
Tips to manage your fussy eater better:
Let your toddler feed himself
It can be rather painful to watch your toddler feed himself, the floor and his clothes, but it’s important for your child to be in charge of the spoon. This will help him to build his self-feeding skills and have a more positive attitude towards mealtimes.
Don’t force your child to eat
Avoid getting into a power struggle with your child over food, because your anxiety may make the problem worse. If your child doesn’t want to eat a bowl of spaghetti Bolognese, offer him another healthy option such as yogurt and fruit. If he doesn’t want to eat that either, just let him be, as he will eat when he’s hungry.
Toddler portion guidelines
Keep these guidelines in mind when offering your toddler food:
- Stick to three meals a day with two or three small snacks in between.
- It’s important that each of these meals contain fruit, veggies, starch and protein, or some dairy and a little fat.
- Fruit or yoghurt are ideal snacks as they’re not too heavy. If your child doesn’t sit down and eat, but prefers to snack all day long, the snacks should add up to at least three meals a day.
- Allow your child to decide how much he wants to eat and when to stop.
- Dish up small portions for your toddler. He can always ask for seconds if he wants more.
- If your child doesn’t want to eat at all, a meal replacement may help.
According to Dietitians of Canada, it’s also your job to decide:
- What food and drinks are served. Make one family meal, not different meals. When you eat and serve a variety of healthy foods, your child will learn to eat these foods too.
- When food is served. When children eat at set times they are more likely to come to the table hungry and try new foods.
- Where food is served. Children will eat healthier when you eat together at the table.
Should I be worried if my child doesn’t eat enough?
Parents often think children can eat more than they do. “Most toddlers will eat when they’re hungry and will stop eating once they’re full,” says Jeske. Don’t worry too much if, once in a while, your child goes on a food strike or has a decreased appetite. If your child is still gaining weight during his appetite slumps, you don’t have to be concerned. You should, however, investigate the matter if his food strike or poor appetite lasts three to four days and if he loses weight during this period.