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Picking Apart Picky Eating

Almost any parent can relate, at least to some degree, with one/some of the following statements:

  • My child refuses to eat certain foods by throwing them on the floor
  • My child wont open his/her mouth to an approaching spoon
  • My child can’t stand vegetables – even the sight of them
  • My child gags on “chunky foods”
  • My child will only eat when his/her favourite video is playing in the background

If you have answered yes, or are nodding in agreement, to any of the above declarations, you’re not alone! You may even go on to describe your child as a “picky eater”, placing yourself amongst 25-35% of Canadian parents (Canadian Paediatric Society, 2012).

What is Picky Eating?

Picky (or selective) eating essentially involves limiting your food consumption to only items that you prefer, impacting your intake of a balanced diet. Picky eating can range from mild to extreme, and is most often a concern when health or social problems result (Hamilton Health Sciences, 2007). These can include eating small portions (affecting weight gain), eliminating one essential food group (off balancing nutritional consumption), or not being able to eat outside the comforts of home (limiting social interactions).

Picky eating is typically seen in children, though can persist into adolescence and adulthood. As a person grows and matures, they may be better able to hide and compensate for their picky eating habits. Children, however, are unable to do so. This can make for extremely challenging mealtimes and a looming feeling of stress in parents.

Understanding the Picky Eater

As hard as it is to believe, a child doesn’t just wake up one morning and say, “I’m going to be a picky eater”. There is often an underlying reason as to why this pattern occurs and persists.

  1. Oral-Motor Challenges: Eating is a very complex skill that requires refined movements of the tongue and jaw. The physical act of chewing and swallowing can be hard to master for a number of reasons. If a child cannot appropriately or safely manipulate food inside his/her mouth, and the act of eating feels “too hard”, he/she may resist certain foods.
  2. Sensory Aversions: As we’re all aware, food comes in a variety of shapes, colors, sizes, and textures. Some food is eaten with our hands, while others require use of utensils (this can vary between cultures). It is not unusual for children to be averse to certain sensory properties and resist foods that exhibit them. Texture aversion is the most common. Don’t put it past a child to simply look at something, say “eww, that’s too slimy”, and then refuse to eat it altogether.
  3. Dependency on Distractions: Mealtime routines are usually established early on. If a child is provided with some type of a distraction, such as a tablet to play on, a video to watch, or a toy to hold onto, he/she may become dependent on it and unable to eat in its absence. Further, these items draw the child’s attention away from the food, somewhat masking what it tastes like and the physical act of eating. Think about eating popcorn at a movie, for example. Are you actually enjoying every single bite that you’re taking, or are you mindlessly grabbing kernels over and over again, making your way through the bag? Studies have demonstrated that the popcorn can be stale, and that moviegoers won’t notice, because it’s the film that’s drawing them in.
  4. Identifying Food Preferences: It’s more than reasonable to say that everyone has food that they like, and food that they dislike. Young children, however, do not have their food preferences sorted out yet, contrary to how it may appear. Did you know that it takes 10 times of trying something new, on separate incidences, for a child to determine whether or not he/she likes it? A child may initially resist something because it’s different and providing his/her mouth with a unique experience, yet will eat it without any reluctance a week later. Therefore, consider this question: Is your child actually picky, or is he/she still at the stage where food preferences are being established?

Help, My Child is a Picky Eater!

There is quite a bit of literature out there offering tips and tricks for parents of picky eaters. In a quick internet search I was able to find a number of “top 10 lists” and “changes to make to the family meal”. On one hand, we’re lucky to have all of this information at our fingertips. For parents of mild picky eaters (which, lets face it, every child goes through at one point or another), some simple mealtime adaptations, suggested in these documents, may be all that’s necessary. Nevertheless, it’s those more extreme cases that often require a customized approach. An occupational therapist or dietitian with feeding experience would be able to assess the child, determine the underlying cause, and treat the issue accordingly.

Stay tuned for another blog coming up where some picky eating strategies, specific to the underlying areas of concern, are outlined. In the meanwhile, if you have any questions about your child’s eating habits, or would like help identifying the root cause of your child’s picky eating, feel free to contact one of the occupational therapists or dietitians at Boomerang Health.

 

References

Hamilton Health Sciences (2007). Still a picky eater? Helping children who are selective eaters. Retrieved from http://www.hamiltonhealthsciences.ca/documents/Patient%20Education/PickyEater-trh.pdf.

Leung, A., Marchand, V., & Sauve, R.; Canadian Paediatric Society (2012). The ‘picky eater’: The toddler or preschooler who does not eat. Paediatric Child Health, 17(8), 455-457.

Jordana Schwarz, MSc.OT., OT Reg. (Ont.)

About Jordana Schwarz, MSc.OT., OT Reg. (Ont.)

Jordana is a certified Occupational Therapist who received a Master of Science degree in Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy from the University of Toronto and an Honour’s Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from the University of Western Ontario. Jordana is a member in good standing of the College of Occupational Therapists of Ontario (COTO) and the Ontario Society of Occupational Therapists (OSOT).

Learn more about Jordana Schwarz, MSc.OT., OT Reg. (Ont.)

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