Does your child become difficult at mealtime? Do they always want to eat the same foods, doesn't seem to eat enough and refuses to try new foods? Don't be discouraged: this is a common reaction in children! In fact, they’re not necessarily temperamental, but this is a normal stage in their development of taste. Food cravings are therefore a common phenomenon in children, and solutions exist. Fortunately!
Food selectivity in children
A diet with limited variety characterizes these picky little eaters! Food selectivity, also called food neophobia, is a feeling of fear about new foods. During childhood, most children will be reluctant to try unknown foods, and they’ll tend to consider any new food “bad”. Indeed, about 3 in 4 children between the ages of 2 and 10 go through a period of food neophobia that often coincides with a “no” period. The search for autonomy and security in times of change partly explains this phenomenon. Neophobia translates into various behaviours:
- Touching the food
- Pushing back the plate or spoon
- Refusing to open their mouth
- Chewing for a long time
- Making faces
- Sorting the food
So what do you do with your "picky little eater"? The key word is PATIENCE!
Your little one needs to be in a comfort zone when it comes to meals. They prefer being exposed to the same foods, since they are used to them and feels safe. Conversely, the less familiar a food is, the more suspicious they become. The process can sometimes be very lengthy and even require 15 to 20 exposures. So be patient! Offer them a less-appreciated food always in the same form so that they can become acquainted with it establish familiarity. In fact, if you vary the form of a specific food or prepare it according to different culinary methods from time to time, it will be perceived as new, and it will prove difficult for your little one to accept it.
Consider dips to go with snacks. You can also serve small portions and mix two foods, one that is known, and the other that is new. Once children become familiar with the novelty, fantasies become possible. However, don’t overwhelm children with different dishes. Present previously-rejected food about once every 2-3 weeks. Also, avoid using the “it’s good for your health” argument to convince your child to try the new food, because they’ll believe that everything that tastes bad is good for their health.
Avoid arguing, pressure or any other unpleasant event surrounding the meal. Otherwise, your child may be reluctant to try new foods. Eat your meals together at the family table, because when your child sees you eating, they’ll feel more reassured and may even take a turn at tasting the food. If your child agrees to taste the food in question, you can reward their effort by congratulating them. Moreover, they’ll also associate it with eating their food. However, maintaining a positive atmosphere around a meal will help them enjoy the moment and encourage them to repeat the experience.
Another way to help them discover and enjoy food is to organize food-themed activities. You can cook, garden, organize tastings, do self-picking or agrotourism…Food activities are great opportunities to educate your child in a fun way! Make a description of the food and where it came from. This will enable them to make associations with other foods and thus encourage them to try new things. Get them involved in meal preparation! Your little one may like the food, because they cooked it, which will motivate them to eat it. You can also get them to taste things and ask them about they like or dislike about a food.
In order to promote their consumption of known vegetables, present them in various forms like in a fondue, with a dip, au gratin or freshly-cooked. Do the same with the meat; for example, if your child prefers ground meat, offer a meatloaf, a pâté, or serve it with lots of gravy.
My child won’t eat large portions
Do you feel that your child is eating only very small amounts of food, which may not be enough? Be aware that this may be normal at some point in their life. In fact, after the age of 2, the child's growth decreases, which in turn quells their appetite. Don't worry about it, as the signs of hunger and satiety are often very "sharp" in young children. They’re in the best position to know how much food they need to eat to meet their needs. Besides, like adults, your little one may have an appetite that fluctuates from day to day depending on their needs and the energy expended. If you’re worried about a break in your young child's growth curve (weight loss or size stability), seek the help of a healthcare professional.
Also, a child who reaches the age of 3 will not necessarily eat more if you give them larger portions. Faced with this situation, stay calm and especially respect your child's hunger signals. On the other hand, at this age, your child’s primary interest is not food or meals, but rather play and interaction with other children. This may explain a lack of interest during meals.
Maintain a schedule, first and foremost!
To ensure that your child meets their needs, maintain a regular meal and snack schedule. Offer them nutritious food and let them decide how much. Avoid serving any drinks before or during the meal, as they may quell their appetite. Don’t use dessert as a reward, as forcing a child to eat the contents of their plate to have a dessert could lead them to eat beyond their hunger. They could thus perceive the meal as a punishment. In addition, exercise, such as playing in the park, cycling, or sliding before meal time, can be a good way to increase your little eater’s appetite. Eventually, although the portions may look small, your child will be eating 4 to 6 times a day (3 meals and 3 nutritious snacks). In the end, your child should meet their food needs! However, if your child is losing weight, I encourage you to speak with your doctor, who may refer you to a qualified professional.
Familiprix in collaboration with Hubert Cormier
Aldridge, V., et al. (2009). « The role of familiarity in dietary development. » Developmental Review 29(1): 32-44.
Rolls, B. J., Engell, D., & Birch, L. L. (2000). Serving portion size influences 5-year-old but not 3-year-old children's food intakes. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 100(2), 232.