The Dreaded "PPE"... The Preschool Picky Eater!

Is your Preschooler suddenly refusing to eat foods they have LOVED in the past? Are they absolutely REFUSING to try new foods, and insist on eating only a select few items every day? Are mealtimes becoming power-struggles? Or, even more frustrating, have you encountered the "my child eats CAULIFLOWER at school?!? She won't TOUCH it at home??".

You are not alone - this happens to more parents of preschoolers than you may realize!

 You have entered into the PPE Zone; the Preschool Picky Eater!

 You have entered into the PPE Zone; the Preschool Picky Eater!

The Preschool Years, from ages 2.5 through 5, are an amazing and mind-boggling period of life - this is the window where human beings go through the fastest and most complex developmental growth.

This can create many challenging periods for caregivers, as they try and keep up with their child's ever-changing evolution. 

Throughout my 17 years working with families in this amazing early learning field, there are two main concerns that crop up regarding their child's eating:  

  1. their child being a "picky eater" 
  2. and their child going through phases where they barely eat

These are two separate areas of child development, so let's tackle them one at a time. 

Picky Eaters: 

When it comes to eating habits of the preschool child, the most common frustration from caregivers is "picky eaters"; that dreaded phase where children begin to establish their independence in what they eat, when they eat, how much they eat - and what they DON'T eat!  

@who.needs.a.username_ posed this question to us on Instagram:

"how can I get my toddler to eat better?"

I am a firm believer that when it comes to solving ANY behavioural concerns for the preschool child, we first must determine the root cause; every behaviour the preschool child exhibits will be the result of an underlying reason. And once we determine the reason we have the knowledge and understanding to come up with a solution to meet their needs. 

Almost all young preschoolers (and for this, I mean children between the ages of 18 months - 3 years) will enter into a phase where their eating habits change.

This happens for two physiological reasons:

First: because their tastebuds are evolving (which leads to more sensitivity to tastes), and;

Second: because their emotional development is moving towards independence, and their awareness that they have the ability to affect change in their environment. 

Some children will move through these phases quickly, and it doesn't lead to much change to their eating habits.

However, many will take longer in this phase; and depending on a variety of factors (including internal and external) that occur during this window, it can create long-lasting effects to the child. 

The first step to understanding WHY your child is a picky eater is to look at the "Whole Picture".

It is my belief that there are 4 Main Reasons for the Preschool Child to become a picky eater - and as the caregiver, consider each of the four categories and evaluate them for your child: 

  1. Sensory: all preschool children are aware of differences in texture, temperature, and how things feel - and while many children enjoy a wide variety of sensory experiences (both food related and non-food related) for others it can cause feelings of dislike, and at times even anxiety. Does your child seem hesitant to play with gooey materials (wet mud, cornstarch magic, etc)? Do they dislike the feeling of wet clothes? These could be signs that they are not comfortable with forms of sensory experiences. Watch your child when they eat foods of varying textures: does "wet" foods (think cut grapes, cottage cheese, jello) cause discomfort? Do they gag, or immediately spit it out? Does their facial expression change? Does "dry" foods (think crackers, pretzels) cause them to chew for extremely long periods of time? Do they have trouble swallowing denser foods (think raw carrot sticks, meat)? If so, they could be hesitant to try foods due to a dislike of the sensory experience they create. Or, worried that a new food will be like a remembered sensory experience from a past food. There are tips at the end of this blog post for ways to support children with Sensory concerns when eating.  
  1. Medical: there are some medical conditions (common to preschool children) that can lead to changes in eating habits. Some main ones are: acid reflux, gluten sensitivities, lactose intolerance, and constipation. If you notice signs that your child may be having medical concerns (inability to have regular bowel movements, frequent cases of loose stools/diarrhea, nausea after eating, stomach cramps after eating, gas pains) then I suggest starting a Food Journal. For three straight weeks, chart everything your child eats and drinks (including how much, specific foods) - as well as charting any physical symptoms they experience (including start and end times, severity of symptoms, and if anything alleviated it) then take it to your child's pediatrician for their review. Make sure to include your child's preschool program - so that they can also keep a food journal which you can include in the final document to the pediatrician. Ex: March 28, 3:00 pm, snack: two whole grain triscuit crackers, one ounce marble 2% cheese, four mini carrot sticks (raw), 4 ounces water. March 28, 3:24 pm, moderate stomach cramps, nausea, stopped at 3:38 pm).  
  2. Behavioral: this is actually more rare than you might think (as the preschool child often experiments with control of their environment by their choices in behaviours, when it comes to picky eating if there is a behavioural component it is usually a byproduct of other environmental issues (these will be explained further down). One of the best ways to determine if Picky Eating is Behavioral - look at your child's overall development. Are you experiencing power struggles in the morning when deciding what clothes your child will wear? Is bedtime a struggle, with power struggles on getting to sleep? Is clean up time becoming a power struggle, to get your child to participate in cleaning? If you can see other areas of your child's day where they are demonstrating exerting control over situations, then the picky eating may simply be an extension of this stage of development. If you believe this is the case, then try out some of the Tips at the end of this Blog; specifically the ones involving your child in the meal time routines - if they are looking for ways to experiment positively with control, being able to participate in meal planning, shopping, and food preparation may be the ideal support system for overcoming the picky eating!
  3. Environment: This is perhaps the hardest for us as adults to evaluate, as the environment is a product of our own personal beliefs, parenting styles, our own upbringing, our core values, and our lifestyles. But if you have examined the first 3 Reasons, and they don't really reflect your child, then that leaves the environment. The Environment is EVERYTHING that surrounds your child; our daily routines, where we eat, how we eat, what we eat, our expectations for how and what our child eats, our language/interactions with our child at mealtimes, our choices of involving our child in food-related pieces of daily life....... Basically EVERYTHING in your child's environment - the people, interactions, verbal and nonverbal expectations, furniture, surroundings, and external distractions. The best way to evaluate the Environment is to look at the following Tips and Strategies; see if any apply to your environment (both as possible elements of success and barriers to success) and then decide if any changes could be beneficial to your family!!

Tips and Strategies for Supporting Picky Eaters:

ROUTINE: 

  • Like ALL aspects of the preschool child's life, having predictable and reliable routines is CRUCIAL. This provides stability to their lives, allows their bodies to become regulated for when to eat, when to sleep, and is a proven method to having a healthy life. 
  • Make Meal Times a set routine, every day. Whenever possible, avoid eating on the run (especially sitting in back seats of vehicles), drastic changes in time (if you eat dinner at 6:00 pm daily, do your best to eat at that time every day). I know this can be extremely tough in our busy day and age of extracurricular activities, sports, dance, swim lessons - but do your best. 
  • Make the act of meal time it's own routine - get your child involved in setting the table, serving and passing food items, and clearing the dishes when finished!

HAVE FAMILY MEALS EVERY DAY:

  • Many families are faced with barriers, such as shift work, extracurricular activities, etc - but EVERYONE who is home, should eat together. The WORST thing a family can do is have "seperate meal times" for kids vs. adults - children miss out on great opportunities for bonding, role modelling, and fun when they aren't eating with their parents!  
  • Make Meal Time it's OWN EVENT!! This means eating at the table - no toys, no video games, no tv's - just fun, family time to talk, laugh, share about your days, and bond!!  

REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS:

  • Try out the "One Bite Rule"; allow your child the freedom to try new foods, but the safety if they do not like it - let them know they can spit it out if they do not like it, or if they do swallow if, respect their choice to not have more! I have used this system for YEARS with preschool children, and it works!! It is by FAR my most-recommended Tip for families of Picky Eaters!!! When children are given the freedom to explore WITH the respect that it is ok to not like all foods - they are way more adventurous to try new foods! And often, end up liking the new foods!! And let's be honest - as adults, if someone asked us to try a new food and we did not like it - would you want to be respected for knowing your own likes/dislikes? Or would you want them to force you to keep eating it? I know for myself - if I was forced to eat cottage cheese - you would quickly be seeing what I ate for breakfast!!! It would NOT be a pleasant experience for you or me!! The "One Bite System" really does meet the child's needs of respect, while also encourages them to try new foods - win win!!
  • Please - do NOT make your child finish all the food on their plate. And PLEASE don't force them to eat out of guilt (guilt that if they don't it disrespects the person who made it, or guilt that food is being "wasted"). The preschool child NEEDS to be able to learn their body's signs for fullness and satiety - and be encouraged to FOLLOW THESE SIGNS. If they don't, this leads to childhood obesity (a HUGE issue amongst both Canadian and American children), and eating disorders. Support your child in learning their cues for fullness, and provide POSITIVE feedback for listening to their bodies!! 

INTRODUCING NEW FOODS:

  • Remember earlier, when we talked about Sensory issues with foods? There are some great ways to support your child with eating new foods, while supporting their sensory concerns. If you want your child to try eating broccoli - but the first attempt of giving it raw didn't go well, try it again - but cooked differently. Try the broccoli another day steamed, then again another day stir fried - the key is to try presenting the same foods multiple times, in multiple ways - to see if there is a change in your child liking them!
  • Serve new foods more than once!! If you want your child to try hummus (which is a HUGELY POPULAR snack food in our program!) make sure you try it a few times, over a few weeks - just because your child wasn't interested one day, doesn't mean they won't be down the road!! With preschool kids, there are SO MANY factors that affect their everyday lives - how well they slept night before, if they just had an upsetting social interaction with a sibling, if they are coming down with a cold, if there a full moon (yes, that ones true!!), the list goes on and on! Don't give up - keep trying it, and you may find they like it!! Side note: this is also one of the key reasons children eat foods in a group-care (preschool/nursery school) setting that they refuse to eat at home - it is the change in the environment - seeing their peers eat a food is a powerful motivator for a preschool child, and helps them feel empowered to try something new!! 
  • Introduce new foods in a meal along with some favorites - if your child loves pasta, try adding some steamed cauliflower to the sauce, and see what happens! Or, instead of French Fries with their favourite hamburger, try sliced papaya! As long as there are some "favorites" with the meal, they will have foods to fill their tummy if they don't like the new items! 
  • ROLE MODEL!!! Make sure your child sees you eating the new foods!! Imagine, if your child is being asked to eat his lima beans, but Mom never eats them? You'd be amazed how much witnessing seeing a loved one eat a new food will affect your child! Make it a game - "let's take a bite of brocolli at the same time - one, two, THREE... BITE!!" Trust me - it works!! 
  • Be imaginative!!! The preschool child LOVES imaginative play; so why can't meal times be included? Want to get your three year old to try some green and red pepper slices - pretend to be turtles swimming in the ocean, and SNAP a bite off!! Again - it works!!! 
  • Involve your child! Get their input in meal planning, grocery shopping, and cooking! When the preschool child is involved, they feel ownership and pride in their accomplishments - and are heading into meal time excited for the product of their hard work!! 
  • If all else fails, and you just can't seem to get your preschoolers to eat enough of a food group - let's say vegetables for example - get creative in your meal prep! Use a food processor to mince up steamed veggies, and add them to your spaghetti sauce!! Add some minced zucchini to your child's favourite banana bread muffins!! This will help ensure your child is getting the vitamins and nutrients they need, during this short (yes, it won't last forever!!) windows of Picky Eating! 

Things to Avoid:

  • Limit snacks in the hour leading up to meal times - if their tummy is full, they're not coming to meal time ready to eat a balanced diet. 
  • Be aware of how much liquid is being drank during meals - preschoolers have small stomachs, and if it fills up with milk, juice, or water - it limits the amount of food they can eat! 
  • Avoid bribes - preschool children need to learn and be instrinsically-motivated to eat healthy, balanced diets to ensure a healthy life; not in order to receive a treat (like a candy or cookie for eating their vegetables).  This creates an unhealthy image for children of food habits and lifestyles, which can have life-long affects. It is absolutely fine to finish a meal with dessert - just make sure that dessert is NOT a reward for accomplishing a task. 
  • Same as avoiding bribes - avoid punishments. Children need to view eating habits as a healthy part of life; and by enforcing punishments (ex. If you don't eat your vegetables you can't play iPad tonight), you are undermining the real goal - to have your child learn about and begin using healthy eating habits. It is proven that reward and punishment systems for normal pieces of a child's life (eating, sleeping, potty training, etc) actually are detrimental to their long term healthy development.  
  • This last one can at times be the hardest for caregivers - do NOT prepare alternate meals for your child, if they do not want to eat what is being offered. Chances are, there is at least ONE thing at the meal they like, and even if that's all they choose to eat for that meal - they are walking away fed. Their nutrition will balance out with the next meal(s), and if they truly are hungry - THEY WILL EAT! So by allowing them to refuse the meal altogether and preparing them a completely new meal - they are learning that they have control over the situation; which can lead to MANY behavioural issues down the road (remember when we discussed the 4 Reasons for picky eaters above? This is one of the causes for Behavior Picky Eaters - it becomes less about the actual food, and more about exerting control in a situation).  

All in all, once you figure out WHY your child has become a picky eater, you can start trying out some of the tips and strategies.  

If you have tried changing the environment, and still see no positive changes in your child's eating habits, and it is lasting past three months - then I recommend speaking to your child's pediatrician, to rule out any other possible causes. 

     

Barely Eating Phases:

This is another common concern from families: their child, who normally is a healthy eater, suddenly is barely eating! Help! Is there something wrong with him/her? Are they in danger? 

When this happens, it can be very scary for parents, especially when they ask their child why they aren't eating - and the response is "I'm not hungry".

Try not to panic. Many preschool kids will go through phases where they either eat less than normal per meal, or are outright not hungry at meals. This can also at times be linked to picky eating, though this is rare.

These phases come and go, and can be linked to lots of things - common illnesses, growth spurts, etc. Your child will eat when they're hungry! If you are really concerned, you can give them a children's vitamin drink such as Pediasure (like Boost for adults) to make sure they are still getting the nutrients they need, along with a children's multivitamin.

But rest assured, their appetite WILL return, and they WILL eat when they are hungry! 

If the phase lasts more than a few weeks, or you see other signs of illness (lethargy, sleep changes, etc) check in with your pediatrician, who can do other tests to rule out underlying causes.  

I hope this Blog Post has provided some form of support or help for parents of the dreaded PPE Zone! If nothing else, at least you know you are not alone!

If you have any tips or suggestions that may help fellow caregivers, feel free to post them in a comment! 

 And remember - one day, when your child is grown and has babies of their own - and they come to you for help with their own Picky Eaters... You will have a WEALTH of stories and anecdotes to share with them!!