Tackling Picky Eating: What Parents Can Do?

Picky eating is a common predicament with children; its prevalence ranges from 6% to 50% across the globe, according to a review article. Is your child a picky eater?

Picky or fussy eating can be defined as refusing to try new foods or having strong food preferences. Even though majority of picky eaters will grow out of this behaviour, but if left unaddressed, this problem may affect their dietary intake, leading to growth and developmental problems. Let’s look at some common parental concerns.

Why is my child picky with food?

It is not easy to pinpoint a single cause as the problem stems from an interaction of multiple factors: food neophobia (fear of new food), history of food trauma (e.g. choking), parental dietary habits, feeding styles and control (either too strict or too lenient), higher taste sensitivity, etc. Picky eating has also been linked to improper complementary feeding, e.g. early introduction of complementary foods prior to 6 months. Underlying medical issues, like oral motor difficulty, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and allergies could also be the cause.

How does it affect my child’s dietary intake and growth?

Picky eating may result in a lack of food variety in the daily diet, since the child tends to eat only the same type of food most of the time. Low consumption of vegetables, fruits or meats due to picky eating can lead to imbalanced diet and insufficient intake of certain nutrients, such as protein, dietary fibre and micronutrients like iron and zinc, which are necessary for growth and development. Hence, growth and weight problems, such as underweight, stunting and overweight, may arise. There is also the risk of developing other problems, like constipation, dental problems or even eating disorders in the future.

What can I do then?

Here are some suggestions to help your child try more varieties of food:

  • Prepare meals together. Let him pick the veggies to cook for dinner and give him simple kitchen tasks suitable for his age and motor skills. Exposure to various ingredients may encourage him to try new foods.
  • Be creative with recipes. Mix familiar food or favourite flavours with new food or less favoured flavours. Try serving new food that has similar colours, flavours or textures with his favourite dish.
  • Have the same meals together as a family. Your child does not need a “special” meal, but do include food that he eats at the table. This is an opportunity to demonstrate healthy eating.
  • Limit snacks and have meals on time. Don’t give beverages or snacks too close to meal times as this can reduce his appetite.
  • Praise your child for trying new food, and continue to include the food regularly or in different ways. But don’t reward or bribe him for his attempts.
  • Offer small portions in fun ways. Decorate the dishes in fun, colourful ways to make food look more appetising and tasty (e.g. bento boxes). Kids also love bite-sized finger foods.

It’s frustrating when my child throws tantrums during meal times. Should I let him have whatever he wants?

Offer him with two healthy options and let him decide which one to eat. However, avoid forcing him to eat or punishing him for his refusal. Remember this simple rule: parents decide what to serve and kids get to choose what or whether to eat. Continue to offer him a variety of new food choices. It may take up to 20 repeated exposures before a child accepts a new food. Be consistent, but it’s okay to have short breaks between tries.

How can I be sure that my picky eater is still growing well?

One simple way is to consistently monitor his height and weight to detect any sudden changes to his growth. The WHO weight-for-age and height-for-age growth charts are available on our website. Do not panic when his height or weight seems to fall outside of the recommended growth curve. As long as he has a progressive growth pattern over time, he is growing well. Food diaries may be used to check if he is consuming enough food and nutrients. Early detection is the key to manage any growth issue and prevent it from becoming a lifetime problem. Do seek advice if the child fails to gain weight (poor/no weight gain) or loses weight over time.

What else can I include in his daily diet?

Milk should be a part of the daily diet of a growing child, to contribute to meeting his energy and nutrient needs. As fussy eaters are likely to be deficient in crucial nutrients, formulated milk powder for children, fortified with various nutrients and other food components can be considered for inclusion in his daily diet. It is however important to note that milk is not meant to be a replacement of his regular meals. Continue to follow the tips above to help improve the diet of a picky eater.

A healthy diet which is balanced and varied is essential for your child’s growth. It is also important to monitor his weight and height regularly and track his eating behaviour. Picky eating can be resolved if you take the time and effort to address the issue. Do seek a healthcare professional if you have problems tackling his picky eating habits or concerns about his growth.

An educational collaboration with Nutrition Society of Malaysia.

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