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Is your child a 'picky' eater?

Have you ever felt panicky when your child does not eat? I certainly have, sometimes, when my children were small and stubbornly determined not to eat the food lovingly prepared for them. I have had to remind myself that human beings have a physical urge to eat and will not die of starvation if there is food around!

We Mums have such a thing about getting our children to eat. When they are upset, the first things we want to do, even when they are adults, is to cook them their favourite foods. It is one thing we are usually really good at, and it is part of our maternal, nurturing natures – starting from our naturally being able to feed our babies from our own bodies.

In fact, food, and feeding is a hugely psychological issue for many children. I have met children who, having seen the effect their NOT eating has on their Mums, use that to manipulate and get what they want, or refuse to do what they have been asked to do. Children are MUCH more clever and aware than we give them credit for.

Eating is such an individual thing to each child. Each of my children started eating ‘real’ food quite differently, but in a very natural progression of their own.

Though I tried with all my children to restrict sweet things, the saying ‘born with a sweet tooth’ seemed to have been made for my daughter! Hard as I tried to get her to take the savoury part of a meal first, and dessert afterwards, she would complain bitterly, pick at her meat and veg, or rice and curry, then finally having eaten at least some of it under duress, delightedly gobble up whatever dessert there was, especially custard. My younger son simply had to have tomato ketchup on absolutely everything he ate – and only the one type – I once got a cheaper ketchup and put it into the usual bottle, but he knew immediately and refused it – and the food!

I well understand why children seem to get ‘stuck’: only eating fish fingers, or potato chips, or a very limited range of foods. It takes a very concerted thought-out approach to entice many little fussy-eaters to widen their boundaries.

Eating and talking are so often linked. As a Speech and Language Therapist, my approach to a small child’s difficulty with talking is always linked with my exploring how and what he eats, or does not eat. I am always particularly interested to know whether the child chews well, on his back teeth, and whether he is eating food that requires chewing. This indicates that the child is developing normal jaw, lip, and tongue coordination and control, which are important for the finely coordinated movements of speech.

Let’s think about children who just do not eat things that require chewing, and are stuck on very mushy foods. Here are three suggestions for ways in which to encourage them to get chewing!

1. Bread sticks are wonderful for making Draculas or monsters with long fangs on each side of the mouth! Demonstrate yourself, putting one in each side of your mouth, biting on the back teeth, then getting your child to do the same and make monster noises as well. Then try a single breadstick on each side, and chewing it.

2 Try long pieces of melon, or apple, celery or carrot sticks, getting the child to chew on his back teeth. You do it yourself with him. If he doesn’t like the flavour, you might find he likes it better if you dip the tip in a little salt, lemon, honey, tomato ketchup, dip or mayonnaise.

3 See how many times he can chew on each food on each side of his mouth: maybe 5 times at first, or up to 10. You might find he can do it more easily on one side of his mouth than the other, and that’s fine, the main thing is for him to get started on the chewing.

Eating is also very much linked to sensory issues. And this is something we can use to help in encouraging children to develop eclectic food tastes – if we catch the child whilst he is going through that stage. He usually passes the Oral stage of development, in which he puts just about everything in his mouth, by about 1 ½ years, but some children whose development is more delayed, continue longer, and we can help them by giving them opportunities to taste and try different textures, tastes and types of foods.

Here are three suggestions to help widen their food choices.

* Allow children to play with their food. The stage at which a child is hand-feeding himself, and in which there needs to be a 12 foot area of plastic coated floor, wall and furniture, and a warm bath to clean up afterwards, to handle the mess is stressful for the parent! But the child needs this! Contrary to what used to be strongly enforced in my childhood, it is an important stage in which the child becomes familiar with food, and enjoys it. As with anything else in life, enjoyment makes learning and acceptance much more likely.

* Allow the child to help you prepare food. The tastes and finger-licks are often the best ways for the child to become familiar with new foods in a very informal way. It is also a chance for you to experiment and try out different flavours that might make a carrot stick or a piece of meat more acceptable to your child – sometimes they surprise you by liking very strong flavours, like lemon or chilli, or by preferring it absolutely unflavoured. The child’s taste sensations are often very different from an adult’s.

* Try out new foods when a child is hungry. Give them at the beginning of the meal, together with another food he really enjoys, and encourage him to take a spoonful alternately of the familiar and unfamiliar food, then to mix them.

Here is a great video posted on the site of a Speech Pathologist called Carrie Clark, which gives brilliant suggestions for helping your fussy little eater!

Of course, when looking at the sort of food a child likes or does not like, there may also be other issues to consider, such as whether he has food intolerances or allergies. These become clearer when the whole pattern of the child’s digestion, and bowel problems are looked at – a subject for another post another time. You will need to take your child’s specific issues into account when you use the ideas given above.

I would love to hear about your experiences with your child, and what you find works – do share.

Have a great week – particularly as it is now Ramadan and food takes on new significance.

Margi Kulsoom

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