We assembled a dream team of experts—Daina Kalnins, director of clinical dietetics at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto; Vanessa Lapointe, a family psychologist in South Surrey, BC; and Valérie Marchand, a paediatric gastroenterologist in Montreal—and peppered them with our pickiest questions. Some of their answers might surprise you.
Is there a certain age or stage where parents can expect picky eating?
DK: It can range from one year old to preteen! It’s pretty easy to control what an infant eats, but as personality—and the ability to say no—develops, you’re dealing with control and independence issues.
VL: If it’s an issue of autonomy (as opposed to your child being highly sensitive, which you would already know), you will begin to get inklings as soon as your kid develops his own sense of self—typically by about age two.
VM: After his first year, a child’s growth slows; he gains weight at a slower rate. Around 18 to 24 months, he also starts to develop tastes and affirm his beliefs, which can affect his intake in terms of quantity but mostly in terms of diversity of foods. Kids are often neophobic—afraid of trying
new things—and may need to be exposed to a food many times (up to 15 times) before they like it.
What can parents do early on, as their kid starts solids, to head off picky eating?
DK: Remember that just because your infant turns her head and refuses a food once, that doesn’t mean she’ll refuse it from this day forward. Keep an open mind and offer variety and freshness. We used to think only bland food was right for babies, but now we know that infants can experience the same foods and flavours grown-ups enjoy. It’s more about making sure to offer variety and appropriate texture.
VL: Expose your child to a wide variety of foods from the outset; your child should also see you eating a variety of foods. Don’t engage in food battles. If your child strongly refuses a food, continue to offer it, but don’t force it—it can only backfire.
VM: Parents should try to expose their children to a variety of healthy food in the first year, before they start refusing everything that is new
How does a kid become picky?
DK: Try not to fall into the pattern of taking the path of least resistance and offering the same few things you know he likes to eat. It’s not necessary to make separate meals; everyone should eat the same thing. Parents need to stay in control.
VL: Sensitivity is a big part of this. I have many little clients who gag at the thought of a particular food due to its texture, smell or taste. This is something that really needs to be understood, otherwise kids end up having trauma around food. Kids are coming into their own minds and developing a real fondness for particular flavours. Around age two, children get a sense of themselves as truly separate from their parents—their own likes and dislikes start to come out. Sometimes kids will go on food jags that are totally normal.
VM: Some kids become picky as they learn to express preferences. They also begin to see what provokes a reaction from their parents. Mealtime is
an activity they share with family—it’s the perfect time to affirm their tastes and test their parents’ limits.
What’s your best tip for dealing with a picky eater?
DK: Keep smiling, no matter how frustrated you are. Give small portions and encourage them to eat a bit of this and a bit of that.
VL: Serve your meals family-style, and try to ensure there’s always something on the table that your child will eat.
VM: As best you can, keep a predictable schedule of meals and snacks (but not too rigid—remain somewhat flexible for special occasions). Introduce new food in small amounts alongside foods he likes. Avoid a whole meal of an unknown food. And don’t make a big deal of the new food—keep it quiet!
What should parents never do?
DK: Don’t make a separate meal, don’t label foods “good” or “bad,” and don’t make kids feel bad about not eating. Enjoy meals together as much as possible. I’ve seen many parents who feed their kids early—partly out of necessity, to get them to bed on time, but partly to set aside private time together with their partner—and end up watching them eat alone. You might feel self-conscious too if someone was watching you eat! Try eating even a little bit with your kid, and save the rest to have later with your partner.
VL: Don’t force them to eat. It can only lead to control issues centred on food and, depending on the reason for the pickiness, could be very traumatic for the child. Above all else, be confident in yourself to navigate this. When your kid feels you giving off anxiety, anger or frustration, it can lead to more challenges. Get in the driver’s seat.
VM: Don’t use food as a reward or punishment—and never force a child to eat. If they’re not allowed to make their own decisions now, they won’t know how to recognize their hunger and satiety signals later on. Parents are responsible for providing nutritious food; kids are responsible for what and how much they eat.
How should you talk to your kid about food?
DK: Approach food with excitement: Keep a smile on and be playful. What will this taste like? Will we leave enough for Mom?
VL: You cannot convince them to eat something because it’s good for them. The reality is that kids can’t really understand the give and take of “we eat this because it is healthy for our bodies, even if it doesn’t taste good” until their brains are more developed, typically between ages five and seven, and even later for more intense kids. So don’t come at it that way. Make your table safe and welcoming. Make meal prep inclusive so kids have fun with it and with you. Offer a family-style meal with choices you know will make them happy, with new foods that might be a stretch. Then have conversations about being a risk taker and finding courage, and see how that lands in terms of trying new foods.
What’s up with erratic appetites—he eats a feast one night and nothing the next. Is it a concern?
DK: Look at the whole day and his activities. If he’s growing well, it’s not an issue. Little bites add up quickly.
VM: Toddlers often have an erratic appetite—it’s normal for them to eat one good meal out of three. Why should they have the same appetite every day? We don’t as adults, and no one blames us for it!
Hiding healthy foods: Yes or no?
DK: I’m not a fan of hiding things. There’s so much value in teaching kids about what different foods do for the body. Food equals strength.
VL: I think it’s fine. Just do it confidently. I don’t tell my kids, “Just so you know, I used butter in these muffins,” so why would I tell them I used sweet potato in them? We use vegetable purées in our food all the time—not because we’re hiding them but because it ups the nutritional content and flavour of the food.
VM: Hiding vegetables in soups, sauces and smoothies is a good idea. Parents feel better about the quality of food they’re offering, and kids are actually eating nutritious food. It may also help them to get used to some flavours.
How do you get a toddler to sit still and eat at the table? Is it important?
DK: Mealtime should last 30 minutes max. Letting it drag on for an hour is useless. If they’re still hungry later on, re-offer the original meal.
VL: Sitting still for a meal is not important and is development-ally unrealistic. Five minutes max, and move on. The time can stretch out as your child grows. But it is healthy to develop routines and expectations: Dinner is served at the table and food stays at the table. If your kid is always on the move, figure out a solution that keeps him stationary and safe—allow him to stand at the table, use a wobble cushion on his chair or set a timer—but don’t demand that he sit still and eat.
Bottom line: Does picky matter?
DK: Ultimately, kids will come around. Stick with your beliefs, and talk enthusiastically and positively about food.
VL: If a child’s health is being negatively impacted, then yes, it does matter. But the vast majority of picky eaters are going to cope beautifully with parents who are capably in the lead and who wisely avoid getting into battles over food.
VM: Studies have shown that most children—even if they often eat the same type of food—will, over a period of a week, end up having taken food from all food groups.
A version of this article appeared in our November 2016 issue, titled “Give peas a chance,” pp. 86-92.