Sitting across from you at the dinner table is a young face, scrunched up in a scowl. He pushes his food around his plate, looks you dead in the eye and refuses to eat what you've prepared. This isn't the first time he has snubbed your dinner and you know it won’t be the last. Exhausting doesn't even begin to cover it, mostly because the scowling young face isn't your toddler; it’s your tween.
Dealing with a tween can be tough. They're starting to want more independence, but they still need your guidance (even though they don’t think so). This can make it even more difficult to handle your tween’s picky eating habits. The new push for independence may be one of the reasons your tween is refusing to eat what you put on the plate; tweens love to flex their muscles and make their own decisions.
Isabel, from Peterborough Ont., has two young girls, nine-year-old Kirsten and seven-year-old Ellen. Isabel struggles with her eldest daughter Kirsten’s choosy mealtime decisions.
“I think what I find frustrating is when she'll no longer eat things that she used to, or is extremely selective. For example, Tim Horton’s bagels toasted with cream cheese are wonderful, but she doesn't’t like the exact same thing when it’s made at home,” says Isabel.
Dietitian Lise Leahy and psychological associate Constance Oates from the Peterborough Regional Health Centre both agree that picky eating during the tween years is more complex than the picky toddler.
“A child of this age has begun to internalize some ideas of themselves as a ‘picky eater’ and are making predictions such as ‘I will be unsuccessful at liking this food,’” says Lise. “They may fear that if they just have one bite then the people around them will expect them to eat that food again. Depending on the child’s temperament, this can lead to avoidance of foods outside of the safe few, and decreased curiosity and enjoyment of foods. It can also lead to increased stress related to foods and eating which of course decreases appetite.”
Considering this, Constance advises to first “decrease the pressure or stress in the eating environment and increase everyone’s enjoyment of the meal or ‘eating event’.” Children are learning through practice and by watching.
An effective way of supporting your picky eater and encouraging them to become a curious and confident eater is by modeling enjoyment of a variety of foods at the family meal time.
A dietitian assured Isabel that Kirsten gets what she needs from a narrow range of foods, but what Isabel worries about now is the social issues that come with being picky.
“We've worked a lot on how to politely say ‘no thank you’, and not to say ‘I don’t like that’, or to ever ask a host to make you anything different than what is being served. Eat what you want, but be discreet,” says Isabel.
Hide the good stuff: Nutritionist Allison Tannis says if you're worried about nutrition, sneak it in a smoothie. “In our house we hide fish oil, greens powder and probiotics in a morning smoothies. The kids love it because they get to include their favourite flavours, such as orange or pineapple juice, banana, peanut butter or yogurt, frozen blueberries, raspberries or mango. As a mom, I love it because I know they start the day or get an afternoon snack that is packed with nutrients that can be otherwise hard to get into them.”
Get scientific: Isabel’s way of dealing with her picky nine-year-old, as suggested by a dietitian, is becoming a “food scientist” outside of mealtimes. She says you can do this by “taking a particular food and talking about what it looks like, smells like, feels like, tastes like by just touching the tongue to the item, and even breaking down the eating process, allowing the child to stop at whatever step they wish. Over time, it’s hoped that the child will become more and more comfortable with the food.”
Compromise: Constance and Lise both recommend the Division of Responsibility of Feeding approach designed by Ellyn Satter. Parents choose what food they will serve (a variety of new foods along with one or two foods your picky eater is familiar with), when meals and snacks will be served and where the food will be eaten. The child’s job is to decide how much of the foods they are eating and which foods they will eat from your mealtime offerings.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, June 2015.