Picky Eaters

by | Nov 8, 2021 | Kid's Health topics

Picky Eaters

by | Nov 8, 2021 | Kid's Health topics

What an enormous topic to write about!

There are precious few parents out there who can say that their child(ren) is not a picky or fussy eater. If you are one of those parents, scroll on mate.  The rest of us don’t want to hear from you.  Ha ha… just jokes.  Actually not.  My family are of Chinese descent… Asian mothers show their love through feeding.  This is actually a thing.  My mum was a feeder, and any of my friends who have been to my house for a meal will attest to you, I… am also a feeder. 

Meal times.  For some parents it means frustration, worry, desperate negotiation, or at worst – all out war. Arrrrghhhhh!  “Whyyyyyyy???”  I hear you say.

Well let me tell you something.  Meal times were once like this for me with my kids.  But they are not (at least usually) anymore.

I’m not going to pretend that I have all the answers to your family mealtime woes, because I don’t.  But I CAN talk you through what might be behind some of the frustrating eating (or not eating) behaviours of your picky eaters and give you a few tips and tricks that might just make things a little easier, or at least ease the guilt and worry around having to feed your fussy AH kids potato chips and milk every day… OMG don’t do that.  I’m kidding.  Let’s talk (and let me give you some links to my recipes as well… read on!)

There are a few situations that cause parents concern around diet and feeding that come up frequently enough in clinic that they rate a mention in this article.  Tell me which kind of picky-eater you have (if you’re lucky, you may have more than one type):

  1. The Milk-aholic

ASCIA recommendations are that solid foods are introduced to children at 4-6 months of age.  The Milkaholics are the children who are well past their “solid food” introduction age and continue to drink 6-7 bottles of formula/milk a day (and eat very little in terms of solid meals during the day). 

This situation usually evolves because the priority of almost every toddler/child is not eating (*gasp*), it’s play.  It is much quicker to slam back a bottle of milk than it is chewing through a plate of solid food, and get straight back into the all-important play so much quicker!  We all know that breastmilk or formula makes up the majority of a baby’s nutrition/calories for the first 12 months of life and I think for many of us, knowing this and weighing it up against battling a toddler to eat stuff they don’t want just becomes a no-brainer… and the Milkaholic habits begin to form. Child fills up on milk, doesn’t feel hungry, won’t eat solids, then wants more milk. A vicious cycle.

So how do we deal with this then?  The easy answer is to reduce the amount of milk/formula your child consumes.  This can be harder to achieve in practice because as parents we are programmed to worry when our child doesn’t eat and goodness forbid they lose weight.

My advice is in children of solid-food eating age, offer food first.  You can offer milk AFTER the meal. If they don’t eat much because they are hanging out for their milk, then only give a half a cup, and when they are hungry again, then offer food again. Otherwise during the meal and in between meals, offer water.

If you think your child is having troubles with feeding/chewing/swallowing, then it would be wise to seek medical attention, and then the advice of a paediatric speech pathologist and/or occupational therapist trained in feeding.  There are specialised “feeding clinics” designed just for this purpose.  IN older children who are drinking a lot of cow’s milk, it’s worth considering a supplementary drink that is fortified with essential vitamins and minerals (for example Pediasure, Resource, Nestle Kids’ Essentials etc) to ensure kids are getting all that they need from their intake.

  • The gaggy-spewer

This was my son.

Oh lordy.  What initially started as physiological reflux vomiting, turned into significant failure to thrive (he dropped from the 50th %ile of weight to below the 3rd%ile) and he continued to do this (albeit progressively less frequently) until he turned 4 years old (*face palm*).  As my story suggests, this can be a situation that evolves from a medical issue such as reflux or constipation, but can also occur if children have had a past unpleasant feeding experience (such as a past choking episode or even forceful feeding).  It can be an indicator that the child is finding meal times stressful, or it can be in indication that they might have oro-motor difficulties or sensory issues. 

In any case, if this is your child seeking medical and allied health (namely speech pathology and/or occupational therapy) input (preferably in a feeding clinic type arrangement) is indicated.

  • The sensory-averse texture avoider

For this child everything is too… “slimy/mushy/crunchy/soggy/hard/chewy” etc etc

Harder and chewy foods (like raw carrot or meat respectively) can be difficult for young children to manage, simply because their little mouth and jaw muscles are just not strong enough yet.  For younger children, work up towards these gradually, and when you do try them, cutting food into smaller pieces can help the mastication process. Also sitting them upright at the right level of the table (so they sit OVER their plate) can help with their core strength and posture to make eating easier.

If you want your child to develop a good relationship with food and eating, it is important not to force feed your child, but equally, exposure to a variety of food and textures is important if you hope to expand your child’s repertoire.  Start with “I know you don’t like it, but everyone has to have a little bit of everything on their plate.” They can start with tolerating it on their plate, touching it, licking it and then maybe even having a small taste. 

  • The control freak

This kind of picky eater originates from a place of anxiety and a “need to control” what is going on in terms of their dinner plate.  Different parts of the meal it must be separated and not touching each other, there must be no sauce on the food, the child needs it a certain way and if it is not served that way, they will not eat it.

I can hear the collective parental sigh.  This affects a LOT of parents and kids.  You know, I have less of an issue with this kind of picky eater, because generally if their meals are served “deconstructed” if you will, their diet overall is pretty balanced.  My advice in this case ususally is, if they’ll eat it, just serve it the way they like it.

  •  The white-food-only-diet

White bread, toast with butter, cheese, potato, packet crisps, hot chips, milk, plain pasta, pasta with a creamy sauce, ice cream, bananas, 2 minute noodles, rice.

I mean, c’mon guys, seriously.  Who WOULDN’T prefer a diet like this if we could get away with it?! I know I would. 

The tendency of young children to prefer blander or less strongly flavoured food is actually an evolutionary advantage (glass half-full!) – it supposedly makes it less likely for them to ingest poisonous things.  Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely they will get all they need from a “white food only” diet, so my advice on this one is to be patient.  Keep introducing flavours.  One of my FAVOURITE tricks in the kitchen is using cauliflower. 

Boiled and pureed, it can mix completely covertly into creamy pasta sauces (try this recipe of mine for creamy pasta;  my kids LOOOOOVE mac’n’cheese and mine is loaded with sneaky veg –  find my recipe here), mashed potato, as a layer in a lasagne or used as a thickener for stew.  Granulated raw (use your food processor), you can add it to rice to steam (you CANNOT tell it is in there, even my Chinese DAD admitted this), use it to make pizza bases, bake it into bread rolls, bagels, muffins… you name it.

Dr Meg’s Mealtime TRICKS

So here are some of my dietary/mealtime tricks and strategies.  Now don’t get me wrong, my kids are far from perfect, they still have foods that they like and don’t like and still cause me (especially after I’ve been slaving for hours cooking up something delicious) frustration and grief when they won’t eat certain things I’ve prepared. But these are some of the tricks I used to increase their vegetable intake and get them used to trying new things.

  1. Eat together as a family

My kids will often be super keen to try things that I really love to eat or am obviously enjoying.  You set the example for your children and they learn their attitude towards food from you (note this can totes backfire when your kids decide they “love” lobster, scallops, oysters and truffle).

2. “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.”  

When I finally gave myself permission to stop fighting my kids at mealtimes, it was like a massive weight was lifted off my shoulders.  I simply said to them, “Fine, you don’t HAVE to eat it, but you don’t get anything else.  Mummy will put a cover on your plate and pop it in the fridge, and if you get hungry later, I’ll heat it up for you.” It was a turning point in my life.  No more short order cook mum for me, no more rousing on them at the dinner table.  More than once the kids didn’t want to eat (and it still occasionally happens)… only to have me reheating their dinner later in the night when they were “hungry” (read: “hungry for dessert”).  They know the rules now and meal times are much more peaceful.

3. Try pairing new foods with familiar and favourite flavours. 

For example, I cannot stand cooked carrots (I like them raw, just not cooked) and I hate brussels sprouts.  BUT if I season them well and then roast carrots and brussels sprouts with olive oil and honey – well that is a completely different story!  Pairing bitter/sour foods with sweet and salty flavours (that kids like) can often turn up a winner (winner winner roast-veggie dinner).

4.  Hide veggies in other foods

Every parent who cooks for kids has a secret trick.  My two favourite vegetables are cauliflower (as I detailed a few of my tricks above) and zucchini.  Zucchini is sweet and pretty much hides in anything. I would grate it into banana bread, chocolate brownies, put it in spaghetti bolognaise or a lasagne.  The best trick though was spiralising it ($5 hand spiraliser from Match Box homewares) and mixing it with spaghetti (with a creamy sauce with cauliflower in it) and calling it “Monster zoodles!” My kids LOVED it. Here are 3 of my recipes for zoodles:  here, here and here.

Also, FRIED RICE has loads of vegies in it – especially if you make it yourself.  My kids always smash second helpings of this.  Try my easy fried rice recipe here. 

5. Use a multivitamin

Whilst you wait for your child’s taste buds to come around to a more diverse diet, use a multivitamin to buy yourself some time. If your child’s dietary intake is adequate, then all you will be doing is creating expensive wee, but if it is NOT then it will help you to bridge some of those gaps in their diet.

6. Don’t give up – tastebuds change over time.

Don’t stop offering a food just because a child has said they don’t like it.  Just try serving it a different way. My kids were not allowed to say they didn’t like a food until they had at least TRIED it 10 times (they didn’t have to eat it, they just had to try it).

Give these tips and tricks a go – and let me know what transpires!

I really hope this article gives some inspiration and hope to any and all parents of fussy eaters out there! Make sure you do me a favour and LIKE, COMMENT and SHARE so we can help as many parents as possible out there!

Till next time, happy mealtimes!

Find us on Facebook

About Dr Megs

About Dr Megs

Megan is a Brisbane and Ipswich-based paediatrician in public and private practice, and mum to two small children. You can usually find her working hard in private practice at Paeds in a Pod North Lakes and Greenslopes, and in public practice at Ipswich Hospital.

PLEASE NOTE: This blog is written for the purpose of providing GENERAL advice about common children's health topics (and of course recipes). It is NOT a substitute for a proper medical assessment and examination by a qualified physician. If your child is unwell, seek medical and attention and advice in person.