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Understanding Selective Eating in Children: Building Confidence in Mealtime

By Emily Hanlon


Just when you think you’re on a parenting roll, kids throw a spanner in the works. I can’t be alone with that feeling, right!? This often happens with food. One minute they are really enjoying bananas so you go out and buy 47 of them only for them to absolutely refuse to eat them the very next day! It can be puzzling when your toddler begins showing signs of fussiness with food. Often, parents find themselves wondering whether their child is showing signs of typical childhood behaviour or something more serious like picky eating?

 

What does food selectivity look like?

 

Most toddlers (and young children) benefit from a structured mealtime routine and clear boundaries to develop healthy eating habits. Here are some common characteristics of food selectivity:

-      Throwing food

-      Difficulty staying seated in the high chair

-      Tantrums when favourite foods are unavailable

-      Occasionally refusing vegetables or proteins

-      Spitting out food

-      Eating a small amount and then declaring "all done" or leaving the table

-      Preferring specific foods or food groups

-      Eating well at certain meals and poorly at others

-      Eating differently at day care or with caregivers compared to at home

 

If your child is doing these things, it is important to remember that it is ok and normal (despite being extremely frustrating!!)


But whyyy are they doing these things!?

 

We know that children are constantly developing and trying to assert control and increase their independence. Mealtimes often become a context where children tend to flex this independence, and food refusal can be a tool for children to use to assert control over their environment, express preferences, or communicate their emotions.

 

Some reasons why children may refuse food as a way of seeking control include:

  • Independence and Autonomy: Young children are in the process of asserting themselves and gaining a sense of independence. Choosing what to eat—or not eat—can become a way for them to exercise control over their lives.

  • Testing Boundaries: Refusing food can serve as a means for children to test limits and boundaries set by parents or caregivers. It's a way for them to gauge reactions and explore their options.

  • Expressing Preferences: Just like adults, children have food preferences. Refusing certain foods can be their way of communicating what they like or dislike.

  • Sensitivity to Sensory Experiences: Children may reject certain foods due to sensory sensitivities or aversions, such as texture, taste, or smell. This can also be tied to their desire to control their sensory experiences.

  • Mood and Emotional State: Children's eating habits can be greatly influenced by their mood or emotional state. They may refuse food when they are tired, upset, or stressed.

  • Tiredness: When children are tired, we tend to see much more food refusal and behaviour at mealtime.

  • Boredom: Often, when our child shows interest in a nutritious food, we get excited and offer it frequently (guilty as ever on this front…we all had to take a break from kale chips after I got overly excited one month!). However, children do become bored of foods and may refuse them if they are offered them too frequently (I wish this worked the same way for crackers or yoghurt pouches!)

 

So, How Can We Help Children Balance Their Need for Control at Mealtime?

 

  • Shift Your Mealtimes: If you find that your child consistently refuses food during certain times of the day, such as dinner, consider shifting the mealtime slightly earlier, even by just 15 minutes. This seemingly small change can make a significant difference in your child's willingness to try new foods and enjoy their meal. Just like adults, children can become tired and less cooperative when they're hungry or fatigued. Bringing the meal forward can help ensure that your child is more alert and receptive during mealtime, increasing the likelihood of a positive mealtime experience for everyone involved.

  • Take the Meal Away from the Table: Sometimes changing the mealtime environment can make a big difference in how engaged children are with their food. While it may not be practical every day, occasional changes in scenery can be refreshing for kids. Consider having a picnic in the front or back yard, or laying out a meal on the living room floor for a change. Another strategy is to serve food in novel and exciting ways. One of my favourite methods is using a metal muffin tray and CONNETIX tiles to create a fun food discovery experience. Each compartment of the tray can be filled with a different food item, covered by a CONNETIX tile. Kids love the anticipation of opening each compartment to reveal what's inside. This not only increases their attention span but also exposes them to a variety of food groups. For children who are sensitive to food textures or flavours, the separate compartments can be a great way to keep foods visually and physically separated, reducing mealtime stress. This approach can make mealtime more enjoyable and adventurous for both kids and parents alike.

  • Less is More: There's a common misconception that we need to serve large portions to our children, but every child's appetite is unique, and there's no universal rule on how much they should eat (as long as they are growing and healthy). To avoid overwhelming your child, try scaling back the amount of food you offer. Serving too much can be daunting for them. This is where the muffin tray paired with CONNETIX tiles can be a helpful strategy—it naturally limits the portion size, fitting just the right amount of food into each compartment. By adjusting portion sizes to suit your child's needs, mealtime can be more enjoyable and less stressful for everyone involved. Remember, it's about quality and balance rather than quantity when it comes to feeding our little ones.

  • Explore Foods Using Different Senses: It's important to remember that children often explore foods with all their senses before actually eating them. Just because they don't immediately swallow something doesn't mean they dislike it or that the meal was unsuccessful. Encourage this exploration by asking questions that prompt curiosity, such as "I wonder how this food feels?" or "Do you think this green apple tastes different from a red apple?" You can also make observations like "Oh, this food is cold!" to engage their senses. One fun approach is using colourful objects like CONNETIX tiles as a guide. We've placed different coloured tiles on the table and asked our kids to find foods that match those colours on their plates. This game has been a hit with our four-year-old, who enjoys the challenge of matching colours and then touching and exploring those foods. This interaction often leads to him being more open to trying new things. It's okay if he doesn't like every new food he tries – after all, adults have their preferences too!

  • Get Kids Involved: If you have the opportunity (and the courage), consider bringing your kids along for grocery shopping and let them choose a few items they'd like to try. This empowers them and increases their interest in trying new foods. Similarly, involving children in food preparation—even though it may take longer and be messier—can significantly boost their willingness to try and enjoy the meals you serve. For instance, let them pick a colour from CONNETIX tiles on the fridge and then select a corresponding food item from the fridge for their snack plate. If they choose the blue tile, they might opt for blueberries as part of their snack. This approach allows children to feel a sense of control over their meals and snacks, making them more likely to participate actively in mealtime and ultimately enjoy a wider variety of foods. Plus, it can be a fun and interactive way to spend time together as a family in the kitchen!

  • Set Clear Boundaries: Establishing Clear Mealtime Rules: One of the most crucial aspects of fostering healthy eating habits in children is setting clear boundaries around meals and snacks. As a parent, you have the responsibility to decide what food is served, while your child determines how much they consume. It's common for parents to feel anxious or overwhelmed when their child refuses to eat what's offered, leading them to consider offering alternatives. However, this approach can send the wrong message, implying that there will always be other options available. In our household, we have a simple rule: "That's all that's on the menu." Even if my children choose not to eat what's served, there are no substitutes. They are free to decide whether to eat what's provided or wait until the next mealtime. This was initially challenging for me as a new parent, but I was amazed by how positively it impacted my child's eating habits once I began implementing it consistently.

 

Understanding that food refusal can sometimes be a way for children to assert control can lead parents and caregivers to respond in a supportive and constructive manner. By offering choices within reasonable limits, maintaining consistent mealtime routines, and providing positive encouragement, we empower children to make decisions while ensuring they maintain a balanced diet.

 

Adding in occasional CONNETIX-based mealtime activities can also enhance meal engagement with minimal effort on your part. Above all, approaching mealtimes with empathy and patience is crucial. Recognise children's growing need for autonomy and gently guide them toward developing healthy eating habits. By fostering a positive and supportive environment around food, we can nurture lifelong positive relationships with nutrition and mealtime.


**This article was written in collaboration with CONNETIX.




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