Strategies and Tips to Handle Picky Eaters
We all know a child (or even an adult for that matter), who is fussy when it comes to food. But what is the reason behind this increasingly common phenomenon and how can we possibly counter it? Certified nutritionist Tanja Guigon-Rech takes some time to talk us through the reasons behind picky eating.
When do we classify someone as a picky or fussy eater?
It starts to become an issue when someone rejects entire food groups (typically vegetables) and will bargain to replace their main meal with snacks, treats or desserts. It is normal for young children to go through these phases naturally as their digestive system and taste buds experience various development stages and with patience, some of these more picky phases could be over within weeks.
Is fussy eating normal?
Yes and no. Our metabolisms and our ability to break down carbs, protein and fats are specific to each individual, which means that we all have different food preferences throughout our lives. However, that only refers to the ratio in which we crave carbs vs. proteins vs. fats. It does not necessarily exclude whole food groups, which is one common characteristic of picky eating.
What causes a child to become a picky eater?
A majority of picky eating is caused by an overconsumption of sugar. Before you think, “Yes, I know, sugar is bad for my child,” please keep on reading further and understand that some foods that are not necessarily sweet classify as sugar as well!
If a person over-consumes white starches and white sugars, the addictive abilities of these foods will change a person’s taste preferences. This can be any white starches like white rice, pasta, sugars, honey, syrups, white bread etc. Once the taste changes towards the sweeter side, anything less sweet, will literally taste less and less interesting. At this point your child will genuinely think that certain food groups taste like cardboard.
The trick is to get the transition and the balance right. Children can snack on white starches or sugars here and there, as long as they also eat a balanced diet containing vegetables and proteins. Furthermore, children under 2 years are best advised to consume white starches exclusively (compared to complex carbohydrates), until their digestive systems are strong enough to digest complex carbohydrates.
Then there is one more reason for picky eating, which is not directly linked to nutrition. Children sometimes just want to assert their independence through making their own choices.
How to avoid creating picky eaters?
Use natural, organic and if possible refined-sugar-free snacks. In particular when considering toddler purees, be careful with store bought options. Some of them have added sugars and will already start creating a sweet tooth in your toddler, with immediate addictive effects. Buy organic and refined-sugar-free purees instead and if your child eats an occasional sweet treat and white pasta, you are at least ensuring the “balance” we referred to earlier on.
Once your child is over two years of age, start mixing the white with brown rice or pasta and ensure a complex taste profile. If old enough, include your child in cooking and baking processes and find ways to sweeten cookies without sugar – i.e. make your own fruit puree at home with your child. That way your child becomes more aware about food and how to appreciate it.
You know a picky eater…what now?
Don’t panic! It’s not too late but you are looking into a longer and more sensitive process to introduce various flavour profiles once a child is used to only eating a few food groups. The secret is again: balance and more patience. Children should never have the feeling they’re dieting, as it creates a negative connotation towards food. The changes you implement must be subtle, slow and hardly recognisable.
- Appreciate that your child really feels and tastes differently than you do and that it’s not easy to change that. Patience will be required.
- Don’t force your child to eat a certain food item, but keep on re-introducing things up to 6 – 7 times without any pressure.
- Mix white and brown rice or pasta 50:50 and cover the colour up by already adding the sauce on top. If that works well, try going 100% complex carbohydrates including brown pasta/rice, wholemeal bread, sweet potatoes.
- Introduce more vegetables into your child’s diet. One subtle way is to blend them in the usual bolognese or curry sauce and disguise them.
- Bake together or make your own hummus or guacamole and enjoy the dip with carrot sticks or cucumber.
- Introduce healthier options to unhealthy foods. For example, create a healthier nutella alternative by making your own hazelnut spread and use coconut sugar to sweeten it. Don’t even tell your children, maybe fill it in the same jar and see if they notice?
- Make healthy eating fun! Again, it’s all about the balance and not about forbidding any flavours or fun. On a weekend, make it a ritual to eat melted chocolate on fruits and create your own pizza with 50% wholemeal and 50% white flour. It’s better than a donut and take away pizza and it’s lots of fun to create!
- Appreciate that children’s stomachs are very very tiny and if they are full, respect it and don’t force your child to finish the plate. However, don’t replace the missed meal with a sweet dessert, but rather with a healthier snack like natural yoghurt with berries or hummus and vegetable sticks.
Tanja is a certified nutritionist and Managing Director of Nutrition Nation. Born in Germany, Tanja originally started her career in hotel management where she spent a number of year’s working in an international hotel group. Having lived in Hong Kong since 2008, Tanja noticed the lack of food knowledge and education, poor lifestyle choices, and crash diets that existed in the city and her goal is to educate a nation, creating sustainable, high quality lifestyles and balance.