Do you find yourself having to prepare a different meal from the rest of the family for your child because he has specific food preferences? How do you encourage him to eat a wider range of food? Our speech therapist Ng Yen Wern shares some strategies to help you and your child tackle these challenges at mealtimes.
What is picky eating and is it a problem?
Picky eating is characterised by having strong food preferences, an unwillingness to eat certain common food, being resistant to trying new food or eating a limited amount of food.1,3 This results in a poor variety of food in your child’s diet which may lead to concerns with meeting their nutritional needs, being underweight, and having behavioural problems. These picky eating habits may persist into adolescence and adulthood.2,3,4
What can be done at home?
You can start by having structured family mealtimes where you decide what, when, and where your child eats, while your child is allowed to decide whether to eat and how much to eat.2 Here are six simple steps you can take2,5,6:
- Let your child sit together with you at the dining table during mealtimes. For example, your child can sit on a high chair or a booster seat at the dining table.
- Your child should be encouraged to stay at the table until the end of the meal.
- During mealtimes, show your child that you are eating and enjoying all the food at the table by using your facial expressions and exclamations to show enjoyment. Talk about the taste and texture of the food. For example, “Yum, the fried chicken is so crispy” or “The carrot is sweet and crunchy”.
- No screentime during mealtimes. Though some may see watching videos or television as a coping strategy for challenging mealtime behaviours, it is a mealtime distraction. Research has found that watching videos or television during meals was associated with higher odds of picky eating in children.2
- Use a sharing plate—place each food item on a sharing plate and pass the plate around. Parents can help their child with the scooping if he is unable to do so on his own.
- This way the child learns to eat what is served at the table and does not get into the habit of having his own special diet.
- Parents can prepare what the child likes to eat but should also introduce at least one food item that the child dislikes for each meal. For instance, you may prepare chicken nuggets and fries which your child likes, while introducing corn, if your child dislikes it. Switch to another food item the next time round.
- Everyone should have one of each dish on their plate. This means that your child must have food that he does not like on his plate too.
- If your child does not want to eat it, you can say “It’s ok, you can leave it on the plate”. Do not force them to eat it, but you can show how you are enjoying what he does not like on your own plate. At this stage, we are teaching the child to tolerate the presence of the food on his plate without having to taste the food yet. This will help them to gradually be more comfortable with the food that they dislike.
- Have a cleaning up routine
- Start by asking your child to use his spoon to push the food that he has not eaten on his plate into the dustbin.
- Subsequently, ask your child to use his finger to push the uneaten food into the dustbin. He can start by just pushing one piece of food (e.g., one piece of corn), then gradually increase to pushing the whole portion of food.
- Once your child is comfortable with touching the food with his fingers, ask him to kiss the food goodbye with his lips before throwing it into a plastic bag for discarding.
- When he is comfortable with letting the food touch his lips, you can then ask him to taste the food before spitting it out. Eventually, he may taste and swallow the food on their own.
Have a go at these strategies and talk to your speech therapist if you have any questions. Most importantly, enjoy the precious bonding time spent with your child over mealtimes!
- Taylor, C. M., Wernimont, S. M., Northstone, K., & Emmett, P. M. (2015). Picky/fussy eating in children: Review of definitions, assessment, prevalence and dietary intakes.Appetite, 95, 349–359.
- Cole, Musaad, S. M., Lee, S.-Y., & Donovan, S. M. (2018). Home feeding environment and picky eating behavior in preschool-aged children: A prospective analysis. Eating Behaviors : an International Journal, 30, 76–82. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eatbeh.2018.06.003
- Mascola, Bryson, S. W., & Agras, W. S. (2010). Picky eating during childhood: A longitudinal study to age 11 years. Eating Behaviors : an International Journal, 11(4), 253–257. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eatbeh.2010.05.006
- Van Tine, McNicholas, F., Safer, D. L., & Agras, W. S. (2017). Follow-up of selective eaters from childhood to adulthood. Eating Behaviors : an International Journal, 26, 61–65. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eatbeh.2017.01.003
- Powell, Farrow, C., Meyer, C., & Haycraft, E. (2017). The importance of mealtime structure for reducing child food fussiness. Maternal and Child Nutrition, 13(2). https://doi.org/10.1111/mcn.12296
- Le, A. (2020, July 8) SOS Feeding Therapy and How to Use it at Home. NAPA. https://napacenter.org/sos-feeding-therapy/
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