Family mealtimes provide a wonderful opportunity to spend time with your children. Sharing meals together is one of the earliest social experiences your child will encounter and this can help to shape their participation in family and social routines as they grow. But what do you do when your child won’t eat?
Having a ‘picky eater’ at your dinner table can become stressful for everyone, including your child. Ashley Rego, OT Reg. (Ont.), Occupational Therapist, shares tips to help you understand what might be affecting your child and how you can help!
The Process of Eating:
For many of us, eating seems easy. However there are some common misconceptions about eating and mealtimes that are important for us to understand. Toomey & Associates, Inc. (1990/2015) determined the top 10 myths around feeding. Below I’ve broken down the truth behind each one:
- Eating is the body’s #1 priority – it’s actually only the #3 priority. Breathing and posture are up on top, so first we must help our children to sit comfortably at the table and ensure that their body can stay in an upright position before we try to get through a meal
- Eating is instinctive – after 6 months of age, eating is a completely learned behavior. How we learn about food and eating is unique to each of us
- Eating is easy – Eating is actually really tricky! Eating is one of the most complex fine motor skills our body performs and it depends on a constant interplay between our sensory system and our motor system
- Eating is a 2-step process whereby you ‘sit down’ and you ‘eat’ – contrary to what you would expect, the process of eating consists of 25-32 different steps depending on the food. And this experience begins long before food even enters our mouth, such as when we see food or when we smell it
- It’s not okay to play with your food – wearing food is part of learning about that food! Children will find all sorts of unique ways to interact with food, but all this will help to develop their learning and their comfort level with food
- If a child is hungry enough he/she will eat – if a child has a negative experience with food, or finds food to be uncomfortable, they will not want to eat that food regardless of how hungry they may actually be. Uncomfortable experiences with food may come from gagging but could also be a result of any undesirable sensory experience (i.e. taste, smell, texture)
- Children only need to eat 3x per day – after the age of 16-18 months, we all need to eat every 2.5 – 3 hours. So it is completely fine if your child eats smaller amounts, more frequently through the day
- Children who won’t eat EITHER have a behavioural or an organic problem – often what seems to be a negative feeding behaviour is actually the result of something else. Not having the motor skills to manage food safely or not being able to tolerate the sensory information about the food will also lead to food refusal. It is most often the sensory and/or motor experiences with food that underlie an apparent ‘behavioural’ issue
- Most foods are eaten only at certain times of day – remember how fun it is to have breakfast for dinner? It’s hard for kids to eat certain foods only at certain times of day, often because we tend to eat the most challenging foods at dinnertime. Meats and mixed-textured foods like chili or stir-fry require more complex motor skills. Sometimes when kids have had a long day or are simply just tired they find it harder to manage these foods
- Mealtimes are a proper social occasion and children are to ‘mind their manners’ – try to remember that eating comes first, then manners. A child’s goal is to learn about their food and explore it in whatever way helps them learn best. So we must keep in mind that sticking noodles on their face, painting the table with yogurt or even spitting out something mid-chew is all part of that exploration
So, As a Parent, What Can You Do?:
- Have your child seated at the family table during mealtimes. This will help to create an association that it’s time to eat and will help your child learn what mealtime is all about. Start this as young as possible
- Establish a feeding routine. Meals/snacks should occur at predictable times of day and should include a simple routine before and afterwards (i.e. wash your hands before the table, empty your plate into the bin)
- Allow your child to explore food in a non-threatening way. Food exploration is a step-wise process where we start with being able to TOLERATE the food in front of us. We can then start to INTERACT with the food, then maybe SMELL it, TOUCH it, TASTE it and eventually EAT it! So take time to join in the fun. Cook or bake together, build food people with toothpicks and pieces of food, turn a potato into a stamp or a carrot into a paintbrush
- Give as much information about food as you can. Talk about the properties of foods, what it looks like, smells like, feels like. Or if your child chooses to eat something, talk about what it tastes like, what it feels like or even sounds like in the mouth
- Expose your child to as much of the food process as you can. Where does it come from? Take a trip to the grocery store. What does it look like whole? How do you prepare it? Show them how it changes state throughout the cooking/prep process
- Be patient! It may take up to 10 tries before a child will accept a new food, repeat new foods every 2-3 days
- Know that you are your child’s best teacher. Your child will take in so much about how you interact with food and will follow your example. Model what you want them to learn and have fun with food together!
To better understand your child’s eating habits or to help determine whether you should seek help for your child’s feeding difficulties, you may want to complete this brief questionnaire. The Infant and Child Feeding Questionnaire can be found at http://questionnaire.feedingmatters.org/questionnaire
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