A Dad’s Guide to Picky Eaters

Wonder why some restaurants adopt a no-child dining policy? Some reasons cited are that the little ones play with food and make a mess at the table.

More substantially, fussy eaters may throw tantrums and even run about at meal places. Besides endangering themselves, this causes disturbance to the other patrons as well as stress to embarrassed parents.

Causes for Concern

Picky Eaters Infographic By Abbott n NUHBut being banned at restaurants is the least of parents’ problems; picky eaters run the risk of nutritional deficiencies, with repercussions on their growth and cognitive development.

Poor eating habits developed in childhood may carry through into adult life. Over time, this may impact growth and development. This may even contribute to increased risk for the development of chronic lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, says Associate Professor Daniel Goh, Head of the Department of Paediatrics at NUH.

Kids with a preference for sweet or fatty foods are more likely to be obese left unchecked develop unhealthy eating habits, which would be harder to change beyond childhood. This in turn leads to other diseases that will surface only later.

Parents should also check and balance the child’s diet. Some children may consume adequate calories, but the diet may be insufficient in vital nutrients.

Dietitian at the National University Hospital, Ms Charlotte Lin, shares that parents should always aim for a healthy balanced diet that consists of foods from the various food groups according to the ‘Healthy Diet Pyramid’ on the Health Promotion Board website.

However, getting your child to consume what is good for him or her is easier said than done.

A 2012 study conducted by the Department of Paediatrics, National University Hospital (NUH) and Abbot Nutrition found that nearly half of Singaporean parents surveyed say their kids are picky eaters.

It is clear that many parents are struggling with their child’s picky eating behaviours as well as feeding difficulties. Its impact on family relationships is another important reason to evaluate and manage this problem, says Associate Professor Goh.

As meals are often a communal activity in most homes, picky eating is an issue that may potentially cause stress and anxiety for not just the child and parent but the rest of the family as well.

Common challenges

According to the study, the top three behaviours picky eaters portray are eating slowly or holding food in mouth, refusing particular foods, and preferring sweet or fatty foods over healthy options.

But how severe should the fussiness get before parents seek help? In this case, early diagnosis and prevention is better than cure.

Children take a while to warm up to new foods. Generally, they need to be offered new foods 5 to 20 times (sometimes even more) before they enjoy it. In addition, children may often have to watch their parents eat, touch or taste these new foods multiple times before they learn to like it, says Ms Lin.

Parents or caregivers who are unsure could discuss the problem with their family doctor to evaluate and find strategies to improve the situation, shares Ms Lin.

Coping Strategies

Given the long-term implications of picky eating and the associated negative impact on caregiver stress and relationships, it is important that parents are able to identify such behaviors and seek help early, adds Associate Professor Goh, who is also Head of Division of Paediatric Pulmonary and Sleep.

Bit by Bit

We all require time and effort to adapt to new things, so do kids. When introducing unfamiliar food, pair it along with their favourite foods so as not to overwhelm them.

One example would be offering portions of food that the child can manage comfortably, according to his or her signals of hunger and satiety. Allow the child to take a small portion of his or her meal first and, depending on whether he or she is hungry or full, to offer a second portion or more as needed, says Ms Lin.

Research shows that kids have to be offered a new food up to 20 times before they warm up to it. By giving up after a couple of rejections, you may be cultivating picky eaters instead.

Create conducive environments

Another tip would be to provide a comfortable feeding environment with minimal distractions so that the caregiver and the child can communicate effectively and clearly. Also, this allows for children to model good feeding behaviours of their caregivers, adds Ms Lin.

Tan Wei Lun, father of two fussy eaters, says that he makes it a point to switch off the television and put on his best behaviour at mealtimes. I absolutely loathe carrots but I will put on a show of consuming them with gusto in the presence of my terrible two’s who seem to have inherited this too, quips Mr Tan.

Alternatively, you could have your child’s friend — one who likes the food you wish to introduce — over for a meal to exert some healthy peer pressure.

Involve them in process of buying and preparing food

Bring your child along when doing your grocery and let him have a say.

I like showing them different food ingredients and sharing how they are good for the body. When my kids got bigger, they are also involved in the preparation and cooking of food from time to time. I believe this has helped to cultivate their interest in food, says Lia Chen, blogger of Bentolicious and mother of two.

Make food fun

Get creative with food and dress them up to be visually enticing so kids will be open and even excited to try new foods or revisit those they dislike. Parents could prepare dips, shape sandwiches with a cookie cutter, or even come up with a story about eating that big bad wolf.

When my kids got to kindergarten, the battle with green vegetables begun. They would eat their meal very slowly and refuse to chew. Mealtimes dragged on and were stressful. So I made bento for them, making healthy foods attractive. Because they found their food cute and attractive, they voluntarily tried all the foods in their bento box, shares Lia.

Know thy enemy

There are various reasons for picky eating. Find out why they dislike certain foods and nip it in the bud. Some common reasons kids do not like a particular food are due to taste, texture or smell.

Rather than cooking it the usual way with big cuts, I slice pak choi thinly and mix it in rice before shaping into funny characters. My kids finished it all. It dawned to me that, for the kids, eating green veggies in big slices were difficult to chew, says Lia, explaining that we need to be more sensitive and creative when preparing food for kids.

Cultivate good habits

Having a regular routine helps in cultivating good eating habits too. Schedule a time for meals. Even if your child lacks the appetite to eat, have him stay at the table to inculcate the discipline.

Also, don’t resort to bribing, especially with sweets or junk food. It may send a signal to the child that the “reward” is more desirable and consequently increase his desire for it.

It may be a lot of extra work now, but taking the trouble to develop good eating habits when the kids are still young will go a long way when they grow up into healthy adults.

About the Author: The Dads for Life Resource Team comprises local content writers and experts, including psychologists, counsellors, educators and social service professionals, dedicated to developing useful resources for dads.

First published on 21-05-2013