Sunday, January 13, 2013

"My Child is a Picky Eater!" Is it Normal?

Many parents are familiar with the routine of sitting down with their young child for a meal and finding that the child refuses to eat it for one reason or another. Sometimes, the child does not like a certain ingredient, does not like the taste, does not like the texture, does not like the temperature, or a combination of these.

It can be extremely frustrating the more this happens, particularly when the parent puts a lot of time into preparing the meal. Sometimes, the child may simply be more biologically sensitive to certain tastes and textures and so meals need to be planned around these particular likes and dislikes. Forcing the child to eat these meals while he/she is crying or clearly being repulsed by it (e.g., gagging) is usually counterproductive. Finding a suitable alternative that the child will agree to eat is often the best solution.

A lot of creativity may be required to find ways to get the child to eat nutritious meals, but it can be done by sneaking in small amounts of food into a larger product the child likes (e.g., putting a small amount of pureed carrots in the child’s favorite sauce), creatively building off of foods that the child is known to like (e.g., making a hot Panini sandwich with the same ingredients that the child likes on a cold sandwich), using cookbooks to experiment with certain meals, or giving meals creative names (e.g., Mickey Mouse meatballs for turkey meatballs) based on something the child likes or the food looks like.

Sometimes, parents might rightfully wonder if such eating problems are abnormal and signal a more serious problem. In and of itself, however, eating problems are common in young children, as was recently documented in a study released in the medical journal, Acta Paediatrica, in which researchers in Germany questioned the parents of 1,090 children (544 boys) between ages 4 and 7. Specifically, the researchers found that 53% of children were reported to avoid eating certain foods. This was more common in children who were underweight. Underweight children also ate less food, which makes sense. Twenty-three percent of children were reported to have selective eating preferences (i.e., eating a narrow range of foods) and 26% showed aversions against trying new foods.

The authors found that they were able to differentiate three groups of children in the study. Group 1 (61%) was classified as normal eaters who avoided certain foods, had normal weight, and did not show a high level of anxiety or oppositional behavior. Group 2 (32%) were selective eaters and/or restrictive eaters.
Restrictive eaters are those who eat smaller amounts of food, do not have interest in eating, and do not enjoy eating. Group 3 (5%) were children who were worried about their weight. It was this third group that was most prone to being anxious and to engage in oppositional behaviors.  In the absence of significant weight loss, behavior problems, or emotional problems, the authors concluded that selective eating should be seen as normal in children. If these problems are present, advice and treatment should be offered, such as a referral to specialized outpatient programs to prevent the development of chronic eating problems. In this way, medical doctors and psychologists can play an important role in the early detection of eating and behavioral problems.

Suggested reading: The No-Cry Picky Eater Solution: Gentle Ways to Encourage Your Child to Eat—and Eat Healthy

Reference: Equit M, PƤlmke M, Becker N, Moritz AM, Becker S, von Gontard A. (2013). Eating problems in young children - a population-based study. Acta Paediatr. 102(2):149-55.

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