This Ask A Naturopath question is answered by Naturopath Georgie Stephen.
You’re not alone – for many parents mealtimes can feel more like a battleground than they do like spending quality family time together, and picky eating is a very common source of stress for parents. In fact, one in five parents will seek additional professional support for their child’s fussy eating.
Many people wrongfully assume that children who demonstrate picky eating patterns do so as a result of behavioural factors – for example, these children are often described as ‘fussy’, ‘difficult’, ‘defiant’, or worse! But there is usually much more to the story than simply bad behaviour. In truth, it is extremely rare to see picky eating result from behavioural reasons alone. Instead, there are a number of other underlying factors that contribute to a child’s ability to eat food, including sensory processing problems, discomfort or pain, digestive issues, nutritional factors, delayed oral-motor and swallowing skills, learning problems, or developmental transitions. Eating is one of the most complex things we do – it requires all of the body’s senses to be involved at once. It is important to identify which of these factors may be contributing to your child’s picky eating. If the underlying cause/s are not understood and addressed, additional intervention strategies may not be effective.
At home, one of the most impactful changes we can make to help our children build their eating skills is to ensure they have the correct seating position. For best support, we are looking to provide a 90 o angle at the hips, knees and ankles (see image below). This may seem unrelated to picky eating, but our bodies will always prioritise breathing and postural stability over eating to maintain survival – we must breathe to stay alive and maintain out posture to prevent our head from hitting the ground. By providing adequate postural support, we are allowing our kids’ bodies to focus on the task of eating. Assess your child’s seating arrangement at home and modify it as required. And before you head out and spend a fortune on a new seat, see if you can get creative and use items already around your home – old text books taped together, shoe boxes filled with sand and duct taped closed, yoga blocks, and pool noodles all make great props for sliding in and around the child and on their chair to provide best support.
The second most impactful strategy that can be implemented in the home is serving ‘family meals’. Meal times (and snack times) should be scheduled for the same time each day so that your children know what to expect. At family meals, all family members sit down together for the same meal and food is served on sharing plates in the middle of the table (note that ‘all family members’ can be just those who are home for that particular meal). Each family member takes at least one piece of each food from the table and puts it on their plate (whether they eat it or not). You can have your child’s preferred food on offer so they will still eat something at the meal, but it must be on a shared plate in the middle and all other people take a small portion too. The goals of the family meal are to bridge the gap between ‘kids food’ and ‘adult food’, or ‘picky eaters meal’ and ‘everyone else’s meal’, to provide positive eating and social role modelling for your children, and to provide exposure to and normalise your child’s non-preferred foods over time.
Eating difficulties present on a spectrum of severity, ranging from transient changes, to more picky behaviours, to significantly restricted diets. The strategies to help children improve their eating skills will depend largely on the severity of their picky eating and children with severely restricted diets (i.e. less than 20 foods, refuses all foods of certain textures, always eats a different meal to the rest of the family) will often require therapy intervention to build up their eating skills and increase the variety of the foods they will regularly eat. However, regardless of the severity of your child’s eating difficulties, the above strategies are two of the first-line approaches for helping any child and are things that you can work on implementing yourself at home immediately.
The above strategies are derived from the SOS Approach to Feeding. Click here for more information about SOS Therapy.
For more information about implementing these strategies, or if you think you might require some additional support for your child’s picky eating patterns, contact the practice and ask to speak to our Naturopath Georgie.