Pick eaters. Chances are you have one at home. You know the type: limited to one or two food groups, can’t sit through a meal, won’t try new things, goes on binges where they will only want to eat a certain food in one day, next day a different binge. The only consistent thing about them is the inconsistency.
Yes, you do believe your child doesn’t get the proper nourishment in variety and quantity. You stress yourself over the matter, and the child reacts accordingly. You feel guilty, concerned, and incapable to handle the situation. Meals become an incredible frustrating process. I‘ve been there.
Before we get into this matter, it’s important to say that there are a couple of reasons for your toddler to pick his/her food. Your child is learning about a million things every minute of the day, like independence, personal tastes, motor skills (these little ones are always on the go, it does affect their eating patterns. They don't sit still for anything, even food) and interaction with the feeder (sometimes, a power struggle at the dinner table is just that -- a power struggle) just to name a few related to our theme today.
After a year of rapid growth (the average one-year-old has tripled her birth weight), toddlers gain weight more slowly. So, of course, they need less food. Grown-ups don’t have a clear idea of portion sizes and tend to base it on their own requirements. Get the picture?
Brief stop here to let you know that Abbot Nutrition Brazil invited me along with local press and other bloggers to the 4º Encontro Internacional sobre Dificuldades Alimentares (International Meeting on Food Difficulties), in Rio de Janeiro, to talk about this subject.
Abbott’s research showed us that 51% of mothers with children from three to seven years old interviewed around the globe think that have some level of difficulty with feeding their children. Pick eating is a parents’ perception, it’s very important to say. Only 1% to 2% of this 51% are really compromised as food disorder. The information above brings me back to what I was saying: a young child's stomach is approximately the size of his (not yours) fist. So dole out small portions of food at first and refill the plate when your child asks for more. Studies from the American Dietetic Association show that children – even those whose parents consider them picky eaters – generally consume a wide enough variety of foods to meet their nutritional requirements.
Understand that some children's palates are more sensitive than others. Some simply won't like the texture, color, or taste of certain foods. That's why a child might claim to dislike a food she has never even tried. Likewise, some children may reject a food because it reminds them of a time when they were sick or because they have some other negative association with it.
There’s a fine line when pick eating becomes a food disorder and when it’s just a toddler being a toddler. Even though your child may not be eating as well rounded a diet as you would like, as long as your child is growing normally and has a normal energy level, there is probably little to worry about.
During our talk with Doctors Mauro Fisberg, Benny Kerzner, Glenn Berall, Irene Chatoor, Bill MackLean, Russel Merritt and Kim Milano we learned that breastfed babies are less picky later on because they’ve experienced different food flavors that passed into the breast milk. We also learned that families with regular meal times do better that the others.
Our dear doctors also told us that an eating disorder is about the feeder (usually the mother) and the child, never just one or the other. There are four kinds of parenting style: the controlling, the indulgent, the neglectable and the responsive parent. The parents’ style and the way they bond with their child will determine if and how picky he/she will become. We may not forget about other reasons that may limit the appetite, like genetic inprints (texture and scent preferences), environmental causes (canker sores, fever, stomatitis, braces’ adjustment etc.) or neophobia, the fear or dislike of new things. All these causes may impact the likes and dislikes and behavior of your child.
So, how to tell the difference when a kid is a pick eater or has a disorder? When the health of the child becomes compromised: weight loss, growth retardation and low immunity, for example.
Forcing a toddler to eat a food he doesn't like or a quantity he can't handle may set him up for problems later on: Children who aren't allowed to make food decisions themselves (such as deciding when they're full) are at a greater risk for becoming obese later in life. Forcing your toddler to try new foods will only make him more stubborn and less open to trying new things in the future.
Disclaimer: Abbott Nutrition has developed a tool called IMFeD for Children (Identification and management of feeding difficulties) to help pediatricians to identify and manage feeding difficulties. It is been used successfully in more than 16 countries and now it’s available in Brazil.