From Food Refusals to Food Fun: Helping Your Child Overcome Picky Eating and The Role Their Nursery Plays
We would all love for young children to be food connoisseurs, with a distinguished palate accepting a wide variety of nutritious foods and but the reality can be anything but.
Children’s eating habits at pre-school age have been mostly shaped and moulded by their early life experiences (mostly from parental/caregiver guidance). There are a lot of factors that influence a child’s eating e.g. innate preference, exposure to new foods, eating environments, parental knowledge, parenting styles, and routines.
The majority of toddlers go through what we call the ‘neophobic’ stage which starts around 2 years of age. Previously accepted foods start to be refused and new foods won’t be tried if they look different. Some children can develop disgust fears whereby they refuse a food/call it ‘disgusting’ as they associate it with something they don’t like; they may refuse to eat liked foods if they are near a disliked food (they are afraid of the liked food being contaminated!). Foods are often refused as they don’t match the child’s internal visual image (e.g. broken biscuit or fruit/vegetable is the wrong colour/shape/smell that they’re used to/expect it to be).
Does this sound familiar? For the majority of children, with the right approach and support, they will outgrow this phase however if the wrong approaches are applied (pressure/coercing to eat, stressful/anxiety provoking mealtimes, reinforcement of restricted diet) then poor eating habits may persist into later life.
The majority of young children do manage to get the balanced nutrition they need across a few days or a week if they consume foods from each food group (starchy carbohydrates, protein, dairy/dairy-free alternatives, fruit and vegetables).
What else can affect eating habits?
Many families will have been dealing with the Winter coughs, colds and illness that come with mixing once again. Many children will not have been exposed to these viruses for some time due to the pandemic so they’re immune systems are being constantly challenged, which can take its toll on appetite. As well as this, teething, general tiredness, anxiety, sensory issues, constipation or other issues can all impact on wanting to eat.
Filling up on milk/juice and snacks can all affect appetite for meals and should be considered carefully based on the child’s age.
Children go through different periods of growth and it’s natural for periods where growth has slowed to be reflected in the child’s appetite/intake.
So how can childcare providers positively support good eating habits?
Childcare settings provide an ideal environment to role model good eating habits, provide routine and instil knowledge of healthy age-appropriate eating to both children and their caregivers. The most important aspect being consistency; which is something children may not always have at home. The focus should be on routine and careful meal planning to ensure nutritious food is offered in age-appropriate portions and at the right time for that child. Children over 1 may need snacks, but not in excess or too close to mealtimes.
If you are looking after children who have rigid ideas around eating and only accept a limited range of foods you could try some of the strategies recommended by Paediatric Dietitians and for the best success rate it is important that this continues in their home environment, otherwise it will be confusing to the child. Always try to have 1 member of staff sitting at the table eating with the children.
Strategies may include food-based play, which is a great way to increase confidence of touching and handling foods with no pressure to eat. Involving children in decisions around food, preparing food, laying the table and deciding what to cook/bake/grow can all increase the likelihood of them wanting to eat it in the end.
Fruit and vegetables are particularly difficult to get children to accept so incorporating ideas in the form of a story and learning about how it feels, smells, appearance, where is comes from, is a really good way of building up exposure.
Using a self-serve model at the table can be helpful so children have autonomy over what they’re eating and how much, perhaps try this once a week. Encourage them to serve disliked foods on a small side plate initially and then progress to a small amount on their main plate. If foods not touching is an issue then try to slowly encourage less gaps between foods working up to being able to have a mixed meal on their plate. If every meal served is a separate meal then they won’t be exposed to mixed meals.
Help your child conquer picky eating and build healthy eating habits with V&Me’s immersive food education and guidance from our experienced paediatric dietitians. Contact us today at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how we can work with your children’s nursery.