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It can be nerve-wracking when your child won't eat anything. How are they going to grow if they don't eat?! We will tell you that picky eating is normal so you aren't alone! We have gathered a few experts to speak peace over you specifically about this topic of picky eating and weight gain and to give you some tips on how to navigate the murky waters.
Krystyn Parks, Pediatric Dietitian and owner of Feeding Made Easy assures us that most kids will go through some level of picky eating when they are exerting their independence. For most kids, it will not affect their growth. They are still able to meet their nutrient needs with the foods that they are willing to eat.
For very selective eaters, it can be more challenging. In these cases, she recommends working with a feeding specialist (we love Mini Minds). There can be underlying issues that cause the picky eating that need to be addressed. For most children, continuous exposure to new foods, without pressure to eat, can be a good way to start. Pressuring kids to eat new foods can result in them eating new foods in the short term, but usually ends up backfiring in the long term.
If they are having trouble meeting their caloric needs, you can work on increasing the nutrition of the foods they are willing to eat. Smoothies and shakes tend to be a good option for many kids, because the flavors blend together. You can also make bars or muffins that are nutrient dense. It isn't recommended to hide foods, because that can lead to kids not trusting their parents and being unwilling to try new foods in the future.
Dr. Eugene Symaco, M.D. from Mayflower Medical says that picky eating can indeed have an impact on a child's growth. He suggests offering foods in different forms and textures, using positive reinforcement techniques, and providing ample opportunities for physical activity (we can't echo this enough - kids are hungry after they play). He goes on to say that you may need to identify any underlying medical conditions that may be causing your child's picky eating, such as a food allergy or digestive issues.
Trista Best, a Registered Dietitian at Balance One Supplements, shared that studies show that picky eating is associated with children being both underweight and overweight. Children with picky eating habits, especially the more severe, risk malnutrition, early onset of chronic disease, and significant nutrient deficiencies. Early onset osteoporosis and chronic disease are serious risks associated with prolonged and severe picky eating.
She believes personality, (strong willed children) may view their control
over eating as a means of exercising their will and achieving independence. How to overcome this? Allowing children to take part in the food preparation can help children with temperament-related picky eating so they feel like they have a sense of control in their food choices. Focusing on the nutrient-dense foods that the child will eat is important because they provide a source of essential nutrients from an otherwise void diet.
Blanca Garcia, RDN Nutrition Specialist of Healthcanal, says picky eating can affect growth if allowed to fester. When a child is picky, they may not receive the nutrients necessary to nourish the cells, bones, and tissues for growth. Also, not having enough nutrients can decrease energy and the ability to stay focused. This can also lead to a diagnosis of anemia, where iron deficiency can affect the transport of oxygen and a child’s ability to focus and learn new things. Most cases are mild and the child grows out of it quickly, but there can be instances where the child does not and continues to only accept a handful of foods. In cases that a child continues with picky eating, there can be several reasons that feed into this behavior. A child can have a medical condition, there is a limited amount of variety available at mealtimes, and the situation at mealtime has become a moment of tension between the child and the parent.
Ashley Dolan, Founder of Vegiac, discourages parents to allow their kids to eat whenever and whatever because it creates a bigger problem. She shared four strategies that can help a child to accept a large selection of foods.
1. Reform your Priorities
Every mother easily falls into the trap of excessive worry about what her child eats. It is much more important for a child not to experience meals as a stressful experience than to eat a lot of vegetables. If your child eats only ten foods, but has a positive attitude towards food, then it is a much better situation than swallowing broccoli depressed and crying. Why? Because positive food connotations are the foundation for a healthy and happy life of your child when he grows up. We are sure that you would rather have a healthy attitude towards food as an adult, than to suffer from various eating disorders. If you feel that you cannot control the excessive concern you feel about your child not eating as you would like, consult a healthcare professional. But after counseling, you should definitely try to make meals a warm, cordial and cheerful family experience. Discard thoughts and questions such as "What did the child eat today?" and think more about whether you enjoyed the moments together at the table. Forcing, pressuring or shouting at the child to eat does not help the situation. Once a child is upset or starts crying, the chance of eating is a waste.
2. Smart Meal Schedule
Children should have three main meals and two snacks a day. If she eats more than twice between meals or drinks too much milk during the day, she will not be hungry when it comes time for the main meal. For toddlers between the ages of one and three, the main rule is that they can pass two hours between meals, but never more than three.
3. Self Service
With picky children, it is useful to apply the principle of self-service during meals. Bring a few plates of food to the table and let everyone serve themselves what they want and in the amount they want. If that means that you need to prepare a special bowl of peas, wholemeal rice or mashed potatoes for a picky child, then do it, but don't overdo it with the number of bowls and offerings. Three different dishes are enough for everyone. That way you share the responsibility during the meal. If you were responsible for choosing the offering, the little ones will be responsible for what and how much they will put in their plate. You make sure that the dishes offered are healthy and varied, and the child will choose what to eat from it. The picky toddler may just take the rice, but he'll taste the chicken in the sauce and watch you eat. In that way, he builds awareness of a varied diet and gets acquainted with it, and in time he will dare to try dishes unknown to him.
4. Gradual Changes
When the child begins to consume the food he is already eating and served differently, it is time to introduce him to new foods - not abruptly, but gradually. First you need to offer him food similar to the one he is already eating. For example, if he eats white macaroni without sauce, offer him green macaroni without sauce; if he eats fried chicken, offer him fried fish sticks; offer him boiled peas instead of raw carrots. Don't worry if your child doesn't eat new foods. If he takes it in his hand and smells it, it is already progress. And if he eats it, don't react with surprise, excitement and congratulations, because that will give him the feeling that he is eating under pressure. The reaction should certainly include comments, but more neutral and those related to the food itself, such as "That carrot just sounds juicy when you nibble on it".
We hope this blog gave you confidence about your picky child and weight gain. As always, if you feel there is an underlying medical condition, please contact your pediatrician immediately.
Need more ideas on how to introduce new foods? Check out 15 Hacks for Introducing New Foods to your Toddler.