Toddlers with Fussy Appetites – What's the Cause of it?

Hubby read an article in The Star today about Picky Eaters and brought it to my attention.  It was an interesting article, although I don’t think it really sheds that much light on Gavin’s case.  I’ve reprinted it below because The Star often archives their old articles and the articles become very difficult to access.  My annotations in relation to Gavin are in brackets.

“JUST TOO PICKY…”

Your child refuses to eat and is just too small for her age. Before you start worrying, find out more about picky eaters.

(Well, I don’t really think Gavin is too small for his age and he doesn’t refuse to eat, he’s just selective about what he likes to eat.  Then again, I guess it all boils down to personal definitions doesn’t it?)

SHARING a meal with your loved ones, and especially with your growing child, can be a particularly rewarding and life-affirming activity. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing your child enjoying a meal prepared by you.

It’s altogether a wonderful experience for you and your family, unless your child is a picky eater. Then mealtimes are often stressful, messy, and involve constant negotiation.

What is picky eating?

It’s a typical night in the Chang family. As mom walks in the front door, she is already feeling stressed about tonight’s dinner with her daughters. Kim is eight, while Mimi is four years old. Although Kim is considered a good eater and will eat a variety of foods, Mimi is a picky eater.

As the family sits down for dinner, both Mimi and her mom feel stressed and anxious. Mimi has a long history of not eating and would gag or scream if forced. On this night, like many others, the tug-of-war at the dinner table is not the most pleasant of experiences.

(Honestly, I’ve long stopped stressing over whether Gavin eats at the table or not.  As long as he eats during day, I’m pretty happy.  Although it is annoying that I have to plan my meals around what he would like to eat – especially when we go out together, and more so now that I’m pregnant and fussy about food myself.)

Just like the short description above, most parents who have little picky eaters at home would agree that it is nerve-wracking when their child is being picky about food or refuses to eat.

Identifying a picky eater

Picky eaters are a mixed group, who exhibit a myriad of characteristics. They often exhibit one or more of the following:

1. Limited food selection. This is one of the most distinguishing characteristics. For some picky eaters, their food selection may be limited to 20 different foods; for others, it may be as few as three foods. Examples of such foods often include nuggets, instant noodles, fried rice or baked beans.

(Let me see, Gavin eats noodles, pasta, pizza, bread, cheese, duck, fish, chicken, white rice, crackers, and a variety of junk food.  Then again, what do you mean by 20 different foods?  Gavin eats egg noodles, spaghetti, instant noodles and rice noodles – is this four different types of food or just one?  If you count all the junk food he’ll eat, then that’s definitely more than 20 different types of food.  Definitions, definitions… they’re so vague.)

2. Limited food groups. In addition to a limited number of foods, picky eaters also limit the food groups they will eat. Some will only eat from one group, such as breads and cereals. Most will often omit foods from the fruit and vegetable group and/or meat group.

(Okay, Gavin’s not exactly great with the fruits and veggies, but he does eat oranges.  He also drinks fruit juice and strawberry smoothies – does that count?)

3. Adverse reaction to new foods. Anxiety, tantrums, gagging and stress-related symptoms are typical behaviours exhibited by picky eaters to demonstrate their fear when presented with new or novel foods.

(No, I don’t think so.  He only displays stress-related symptoms when we keep insisting he try something or if we keep offering it to him after he’s said, “No,” several times.  Come to think of it, I’d be pretty annoyed, too.  “What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?”)

4. Food jags. A food jag is defined as the insistence on eating the same foods in the same manner over long periods of time. It limits opportunities for the picky eater to experience new foods and eat a balanced diet.

“Sigh… again, this is rather open to interpretation isn’t it?  I mean, I wouldn’t think Gavin displays this trait, although he does like to eat the same food.  Then again, he recently started declining his all-time favourite – duck – so does that mean he’s finally tiring of it?)

What causes picky eating?

Eating is an incredibly complex process that can be challenging for our young ones, especially if they are picky eaters. If your child is a picky eater, it is important for you to identify the causes so that you may help her overcome this problem.

1. Oral-motor development

A child is only able to eat food when she is developmentally ready. Forcing and coercing your child to try new foods when she does not know how to manage it in her mouth will lead to your child refusing to eat and attempting everything in her power to avoid the eating experience.

(Personally, I think we might have been guilty of this in the earlier days when Gavin’s molars hadn’t erupted but we tried to feed him foods that were difficult for him to chew.  Gavin’s teeth were rather delayed in their appearance into the oral cavity.)

2. Food neophobia

Food neophobia or a fear of new and novel foods is a developmental stage for children between two and three years of age. A young child who is transitioning to adult foods will be offered a variety of new foods and it is during this period that some may reject and exhibit fear of the new food.

(Doesn’t sound like Gavin’s case.)

3. Environmental factors

The environment that we are living in today may pose unforeseen “threats”, such as chaotic work schedules, numerous school activities and meals in front of the television. These will create unpredictable mealtime schedules and unfavourable meal settings that may contribute to problems with eating in our children.

(Neither does this one.)

4. Learnt behaviour

Children often do what parents do, but not what they say. If you are a picky eater yourself, chances of your child picking up the problem is quite high.

(Hmmm… sound familiar, Daddy-who-picked-the-peas-carrots-and-corn-out-of-his-fried-rice?)

5. Autonomy

When your child turns one, the struggle for autonomy and independence may likely contribute to the picky eater phenomenon. Any new food experience can become a power struggle between parent and child. Some picky eaters will decide they do not like something or they will like it at one time and next time they won’t even touch it.

(Yes, Gavin likes autonomy – hence the reason why I’ve adopted a blase attitude towards whether he wants to eat or not.)

When it becomes a problem

Although we do not know the exact prevalence of picky eaters in our country, picky eating is becoming a major concern to parents and health practitioners alike, as it may lead to greater problems if overlooked.

First, it is important for you to know that picky eating can permanently impair long-term growth.

A child who is identified as a picky eater often has a low percentile for weight and height and this may sometimes lead to hospitalisation for malnutrition.

(Erm… don’t think we have a problem here.)

Second, because picky eaters often limit themselves to selected foods, a lack of an adequate, balanced diet may result. Without sound nutrition, this may interfere with a child’s ability to learn properly, thus limiting his or her potential, academically.

(I think Gavin’s developing pretty well – if I may say so myself…)

Last but not least, picky eaters are often isolated from their families during mealtimes, and because of that, a child’s socialisation skills and self-esteem may be affected.

(Well, he isn’t exactly isolated because he sits pretty well at most meals except sometimes dinner at home.  When we’re out, he’s usually sitting at the table most of the time.  He isn’t the most sociable kid on the block, but he does have a good rapport with his god-sister.)

What can you do?

Considering the risks involved, you must not overlook this problem but find the best solution to help your child overcome picky eating.

(By my definition, I don’t really think Gavin has a problem with food.  Am I in denial or am I being practical without looking for mountains in molehills?  Am I overlooking the problem?  Regardless of whether I am or not, the following do sound like some pretty sound advice, nevertheless.)

Create a meal/snack schedule

· Establish a routine by serving meals around the same time everyday.

· Snack time should be at least two hours before the next mealtime so your child is hungry for meals.

Create a supportive and nurturing environment

· Encourage your child to eat by being a good meal companion (ie discuss the taste, colour, texture and smell of new foods).

· Respect your child and do not “invade” her mouth without her permission.

Consider food selection, preparation and presentation

· Take into account the texture, colour and smell when introducing a new food.

· Include your child in food preparation and presentation so that she may have a sense of pride and ownership of the food served.

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Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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