Carefully crafted, home cooked meals are shunned in favour of a plate of smiley potato faces and chicken nuggets once again. For the fifth time this week. You can’t remember the last time they ate something green, beige – yes, green never.
Children go through a phase during their toddler years where they have a strong preference for beige coloured foods. It’s possibly an evolutionary response, preferring sameness, ensuring they don’t get poisoned by unfamiliar looking food. It’s a similar response to the one that women in their first trimester get they they prefer hula hoops to salad.
What happens when your child doesn’t outgrow this phase? When other people notice their picky eating habits and suggest you stop pandering to them. They suggest you don’t offer them anything else and that they will eventually eat a ‘proper meal’ when they are hungry enough. Little do they know, that you have tried, and failed – this approach doesn’t work. Your child has the will power and resolve of the gods when it comes to not eating certain foods. So you go back to rotating 4 foods for the entire week, continuing to offer alternatives, leading by example in the hope that at some point it will change.
So why won’t my child eat certain foods?
Children that have been labelled ‘picky eaters’ have something more complex going on than simple fussiness or using food refusal to exercise power. The problems are not behavioural they are biomedical. The issues are rooted in the child’s biochemistry, and because of this we won’t solve the problem with reward charts and hostile stand-offs. We need to investigate the underlying issues and correct them to allow the child to move forward.
Limiting foods to a select few is a common problem. Sometimes children self-select foods that make them feel good (temporarily), for example gluten and dairy rich foods in the case of those with a DPP-IV deficiency (as in autism, anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, etc.) or starchy foods for those with blood sugar issues.
Often nutritional deficiencies, which are exacerbated by poor food choices, along with imbalanced gut flora and food intolerances – combine to cause sensory issues and anxieties that influence food choices. For example a child with sensory issues around food would struggle with certain textures or ‘lumpy’ foods, sometimes enough to make them gag. If the child has altered gut flora including yeast issues, these fungi and bacteria can send out strong signals for sugary and starchy food perpetuating the craving.
Other issues with food selection are the exclusion of protein rich foods. Sometimes poor digestion causes a child to refuse protein-rich foods. Proteins require good levels of stomach acid to be broken down and used efficiently by the body. It becomes a vicious cycle because brain chemistry is affected by the inability to break down protein and access the amino acids needed to build neurotransmitters. This will exacerbate any anxiety your child may have around food. Often children with poor eating habits have a history of reflux and/or colic. This can be an indicator that all is not right in the digestive system.
The best approach to helping your child to accept a variety of foods is to identify what their specific issues are. Often there is not much you can change diet-wise initially with these children – they are adept at finding hidden vegetables and will notice if you change even their usual brand of fish fingers. But over time, changes can be made and initially we can use child-friendly supplements to help them move forward.