Picky Eating

Does your child only eat when he’s offered a burger? That’s a sure sign of picky eating.

by Assoc. Prof. Dr. Norimah A. Karim

Sharing a meal with your loved ones, and especially with your growing child, can be a particularly rewarding and life-affirming activity. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing your child enjoying a meal prepared by you.

It is altogether a wonderful experience for you and your family, unless your child is a picky eater. Then mealtimes are often stressful, messy, and involve constant negotiation.

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What is Picky Eating?

It is a typical night in the Chang family. As mom walks in the front door, she is already feeling stressed about tonight's dinner with her daughters. Kim is 8, while Mimi is 4 years old. Although Kim is considered a good eater and will eat a variety of foods, Mimi is a picky eater.

As the family sits down for dinner, both Mimi and her mom feel stressed and anxious. Mimi has a long history of not eating and would gag or scream if forced. On this night, like many others, the tug-of-war at the dinner table is not the most pleasant of experiences.

Just like the short description above, most parents who have little picky eaters at home would agree that it is nerve-wracking when their child is being picky about food or refuses to eat.

Identifying a Picky Eater

Picky eaters are a mixed group, who exhibit a myriad of characteristics. They often exhibit one or more of the following :

1. Limited food selection. This is one of the most distinguishing characteristics. For some picky eaters, their food selection may be limited to 20 different foods; for others, it may be as few as three foods. Examples of such foods often include nuggets, instant noodles, fried rice or baked beans.

2. Limited food groups. In addition to a limited number of foods, picky eaters also limit the food groups they will eat. Some will only eat from one group, such as breads and cereals. Most will often omit foods from the fruit and vegetable group and/or meat group.

3. Adverse reaction to new foods. Anxiety, tantrums, gagging and stress-related symptoms are typical behaviours exhibited by picky eaters to demonstrate their fear when presented with new or novel foods.

4. Food jags. A food jag is defined as the insistence on eating the same foods in the same manner over long periods of time. It limits opportunities for the picky eater to experience new foods and eat a balanced diet.

What Causes Picky Eating?

Eating is an incredibly complex process that can be challenging for our young ones, especially if they are picky eaters. If your child is a picky eater, it is important for you to identify the causes so that you may help her overcome this problem.

1. Oral-motor development

A child is only able to eat food when she is developmentally ready. Forcing and coercing your child to try new foods when she does not know how to manage it in her mouth will lead to your child refusing to eat and attempting everything in her power to avoid the eating experience.

2. Food neophobia

Food neophobia or a fear of new and novel foods is a developmental stage for children between two and three years of age. A young child who is transitioning to adult foods will be offered a variety of new foods and it is during this period that some may reject and exhibit fear of the new food.

3. Environmental factors

The environment that we are living in today may pose unforeseen 'threats', such as chaotic work schedules, numerous school activities and meals in front of the television. These will create unpredictable mealtime schedules and unfavourable meal settings that may contribute to problems with eating in our children.

4. Learnt behaviour

Children often do what parents do, but not what they say. If you are a picky eater yourself, chances of your child picking up the problem is quite high.

5. Autonomy

When your child turns one, the struggle for autonomy and independence may likely contribute to the picky eater phenomenon. Any new food experience can become a power struggle between parent and child. Some picky eaters will decide they do not like something or they will like it at one time and next time they will not even touch it.

When It Becomes a Problem

Although we do not know the exact prevalence of picky eaters in our country, picky eating is becoming a major concern to parents and health practitioners alike, as it may lead to greater problems if overlooked.

First, it is important for you to know that picky eating can permanently impair long-term growth.

A child who is identified as a picky eater often has a low percentile for weight and height and this may sometimes lead to hospitalisation for malnutrition.

Second, because picky eaters often limit themselves to selected foods, a lack of an adequate, balanced diet may result. Without sound nutrition, this may interfere with a child’s ability to learn properly, thus limiting his or her potential, academically.

Last but not least, picky eaters are often isolated from their families during mealtimes, and because of that, a child's socialisation skills and self-esteem may be affected.

What Can You Do?

Considering the risks involved, you must not overlook this problem but find the best solution to help your child overcome picky eating.

Create a meal/snack schedule

* Establish a routine by serving meals around the same time everyday.

* Snack time should be at least two hours before the next mealtime so your child is hungry for meals.

Create a supportive and nurturing environment

* Encourage your child to eat by being a good meal companion (ie discuss the taste, colour, texture and smell of new foods).

* Respect your child and do not “invade” her mouth without her permission.

Consider food selection, preparation and presentation

* Take into account the texture, colour and smell when introducing a new food.

* Include your child in food preparation and presentation so that she may have a sense of pride and ownership of the food served.

More info on PICKY EATING here.

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