Picky eating can drive even the most patient parent totally bonkers. If you’re in the thick of it, take heart: According to fellow dietitian Maryann Jacobson, who writes the blog Raise Healthy Eaters, kids between the ages of 2-6 tend to drop some of the foods they used to eat and become resistant to foods they view as new or different. What can you do? Start seeing things from your child’s perspective.
In Maryann’s new book, From Picky to Powerful: Transform Your Outlook on Picky Eating and End Food Battles Forever!, she cracks the code for you. In this excerpt from her book, she explains what your child wishes you knew about eight common eating behaviors–and why it all makes sense:
by Maryann Jacobsen, MS, RD
1. The Erratic Eater: “I know everyone wants me to eat, but I’m just not that hungry. As a baby, I wanted food all the time, but now that I’m a toddler, I’m just not into eating as much.”
The facts: After one year, the rapid growth that occurred in infancy will start to slow down. Birth weight triples in the first year of life but then doesn’t quadruple until the second year. Children between age two and puberty gain an average of 4.5–6.5 pounds per year. This change shows up in their meal patterns, which can include days in which they seem disinterested in food. As long as their growth is on track, you can’t expect your child to eat the same amounts at each meal.
2. The Afraid-to-Eat Kid: “New foods and certain textures scare me. I’m afraid that something bad will happen if I eat it. I wish my parents wouldn’t push it so much. Maybe watching them eat these foods a bunch of times will help me calm down.”
The Facts: “The thinking is that food neophobia, the fear of new foods, has evolved to protect kids as they become more mobile and are able to ingest foods,” says Jennifer Orelet Fisher, PhD, Associate Professor at the Department of Public Health at Temple University. Fisher explains how this developmental phase may have been adapted from a time where fear of strange foods kept kids from eating harmful toxins. Even though people no longer hunt for food, kids are biologically driven to be skeptical of unfamiliar foods. She says food neophobia will vary in children and often matches temperament, so you might see a cautious kid also cautious about new foods and a more easy-going one less afraid.
3. The Strong-Willed Child: “I know my parents did everything for me when I was younger, but I’m older now and want some say in the matter. Plus, food seems to be such a hot-button issue!”
The Facts: Picky eating typically starts in toddlerhood, right when kids are beginning to understand they are a separate person from their parents. They will test their limits during mealtime as they establish a sense of autonomy. This is a very normal part of development.
4. The Veggie Resister: “I know my mom wants me to eat broccoli and other green vegetables, but the bitter taste is too much for me to take.”
The Facts: “We all experience different taste worlds,” says Alexandra Logue, PhD, Research Professor in The Center for the Advanced Study of Education (CASE) at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York and author of The Psychology of Eating and Drinking. “There’s a strong genetic component to taste preferences. It’s not kids’ or parents’ fault.” Logue is referring to supertasters, who naturally taste lower concentrations of certain chemicals, making them sensitive to the tastes and textures of particular foods. She has firsthand experience; by age one, she would only eat bread and milk. “I can remember as a kid how intense the flavors were.” Now as an adult, Logue will eat anything except fish. Research shows that 70% of preschoolers taste the bitter compounds found in many vegetables called 6-n-propothiouricil (PROP), which is why young children often shun vegetables. A recent study showed both genetic and environmental effects on food preferences but found liking fruit, vegetables, and proteins is more likely to be genetically linked, while preferences for starchy foods, snack foods, and dairy is more likely to be due to a child’s food environment.
5. The Carb Lover: “There are some foods that are just easier to like and fill me up with less effort.”
The Facts: “Children have evolved to like sweet foods,” says Fisher. “That’s why fruits are highly acceptable and easy to like, while vegetables are the least preferred.” Fisher says children are actually hardwired to prefer sweet and energy-rich foods. To kids, sweetness signals a food is calorie dense, while sour and bitter tastes indicate it might be harmful. Although this is true, kids (and adults) can learn to like vegetables through exposure and positive experiences.
6. The Growing Child: “It’s weird, but there are times I just could eat and eat. I get the feeling my parents want me to always eat the same amount, but sometimes my body is telling me it needs more.”
The Facts: While growth rates slow after the first year of life, kids will periodically go through growth spurts where they eat more than they usually do. The two biggest spurts of growth occur during infancy and puberty, but all kids go through periods where they are growing faster and others where they aren’t. Appetite is linked to growth. As long as your child’s growth is steady, don’t let changes in appetite alarm you.
7. The “I’m Not Ready” Child: “I love my parents. They are super cool. I want to eat like them, but I’m just not ready. Someday I’ll get there.”
The Facts: In her book Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense, Ellyn Satter writes how kids really do want to eat like their parents, even when it seems otherwise. “Because he thinks that you are great and have all the answers, when he sees you eating green beans, he reasons that eating green beans must be the thing to do. You don’t have to say another word. All you have to do is enjoy your green beans. Observing that, your child will assume that someday he, too, will eat green beans.”
8. The Inexperienced Eater: “I cringe when I see meat on my plate. I know I have all my teeth and have been chewing for awhile, but I still prefer my meats moist and cut up some of the time.”
The Facts: By the time kids reach the preschool age, parents may assume they can chew and swallow like adults, but these skills aren’t fully mastered until later childhood. Children can more easily lose track of food in their mouth, are still developing mastication (chewing) and their airway is smaller than adults. Tough meats and round foods like hot dogs are especially problematic.
The bottom-line is that your child is acting this way around food because he is changing both physically and mentally, not because he is trying to be a pain or because of something you did.
For more advice and strategies, get a copy of Maryann’s book: From Picky to Powerful: Transform Your Outlook on Picky Eating and End Food Battles Forever!
Maryann is also the co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School.
Read Maryann’s other guest post on my blog: The Secret to Teaching Kids Moderation? Stop Making a Big Deal About Sweets.
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