Mealtime can be a huge stress in daily life for families, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Identifying problem feeding versus picky eating behaviors can be the first step in minimizing mealtime battles.
All children, particularly in the toddler and preschool ages, are constantly growing and changing, and their eating and food preferences are part of those changes. But, when should you be concerned? What is considered “typical?”
It is “normal” for children to become picky about eating in toddlerhood. They are starting to express themselves and have preferences, just like we do as adults. Additionally, it is something that they can control, which, while empowering for them, can lead to some parental headaches.
Below are some typical patterns and behaviors that toddlers and preschoolers exhibit in their eating:
1. Your child eats about 30 or more foods consistently.
As stated earlier, it is normal for a child to have food preferences, but we want to ensure that those preferences aren’t being pared down too far. While it seems like a small amount, having around 30 foods in his or her preferred food repertoire is actually considered in the typical range at this age.
2. Your child eats from various food groups.
Within those 30 or more foods your child prefers, we like to see various food groups represented – even if there are just one or two things from certain groups. For example, if your child prefers more fruits than vegetables or proteins, but still has each group represented, there is less concern for problem feeding down the road.
3. Your child enjoys foods with varying texture and color.
It is ideal for your child to be consuming various textures and colors during meal and snack time. Children often run into feeding concerns when they get stuck on one texture, such as eating only crunchy foods, or one color, such as only wanting beige foods.
4. Your child refuses a novel food.
Yes, it is typical for your child to refuse a new food. When presented with a novel food, your child is likely going to take some time to become accustomed to the way the food looks and/or smells, let alone be willing to taste it. In fact, most children require more than 10 exposures to a novel food before they become comfortable with it in their repertoire.
5. Your child goes through “food jags.”
A food jag occurs when a child eats a very limited number of foods and will likely refuse other foods. In a “typical” picky eater, this can last for a few days.
While there are lots of typical behaviors around childhood mealtime, there are some that become issues and can lead to your child becoming a problem feeder. These children will likely benefit from feeding therapy with a speech-language pathologist and occupational therapist who specialize in this area. Fortunately, there are lots of places to turn to remedy any feeding concerns, and children often have great success in feeding therapy.
Some behaviors to monitor are listed below:
1. Your child has less than 20 foods in his or her repertoire.
While a limited repertoire can be typical, one this restrictive can lead to further problems, including nutritional issues. Problem feeders may also be brand-specific in their food preferences, such as eating only a particular brand of macaroni and cheese or chicken nuggets.
2. Your child begins to remove foods from an already restricted list.
There will be meals, even days, when your child will decline a favorite food, but when he or she removes a food completely from his or her limited repertoire for weeks or months, it may be helpful to seek a professional’s advice.
3. Your child refuses entire food colors/textures/temperatures completely.
While preferences are considered appropriate, refusal of entire groups can be a sign of more significant feeding issues.
4. Your child becomes visibly upset/tantrums when a novel food is presented.
As discussed earlier, it takes numerous presentations for a child to begin to taste a novel food, but if your child often melts down when a novel food is at the table, he or she will likely benefit from extra support.
5. Your child is rigid/inflexible at mealtime.
This can be a bit of a conundrum, as we as feeding therapists preach routine to promote happy mealtimes. But if your child has come to rely on crutches such as screen time, adults feeding them, or only certain foods at certain times of day, these can cause further feeding problems down the road.
Although avoiding or turning around feeding behaviors in your child can seem daunting, a feeding therapist can help your family take simple, direct steps toward a positive mealtime experience. Building a strong, happy relationship around food is instrumental in growth and development, and providing positive mealtime experiences is shown to improve many areas in your children’s lives. I encourage you to reach out your pediatrician or a recommended feeding therapist with any concern.
How do you get your fussy eater to make the most of mealtime? Tell us in the comments!