I am sure that there are many parents out there, struggling to get their children to try new foods, and adding those foods consistently to their repertoire. Literature shows that approximately 25-40% of typically developing children and up to 90% of children with disabilities have issues related to feeding and eating (Clawson, et al, 2008, O’Briend et al., 1991). A child’s acceptance of food is influenced by their biological make up, their culture, and their individual experiences they had around food.
There is a developmental, sensory-motor process to introducing different food consistencies to an infant and child. The infant will start with breastfeeding or bottle feeding since they are suckling and sucking with very primitive fine motor abilities. As the baby’s head and trunk stability develops, pureed foods can be introduced. From there, more solid foods can be added as the baby’s ability to manage and chew food becomes more efficient. As the baby ages, they begin to pick up food with the fingers, manage a sippy cup/open cup, and begin to use utensils. Challenges with recognizing or managing food textures, temperature, and tastes as well as oral motor or fine motor challenges, can all influence your child’s ability to try new foods and to continue to expand their food repertoire.
Children also go through developmental phases of rejecting previously accepted foods and they can also become picky with trying new foods. These phases are not long -term and if they continue for a long period of time, these issues could be related to other sensory-motor or social-emotional difficulties.
Interestingly, there is literature indicating that taste buds are influenced by what we eat. For instance, if the child eats processed foods and then you try to introduce a whole food such as a piece of fruit or vegetable, the child may perceive the whole food in a completely different way due to the processed items their taste buds are accustomed to. The child may not accept the food you’d like them to try because of the other foods included in their diet. It’s similar to when you try to eat healthy. At first, it’s so hard to stop eating the processed food. Once you get on a roll, you wonder, “Why was it so hard for me to stop eating that? I love vegetables!” Then after a while, you might start to eat “cheat foods” again. Next thing you know, you feel like you are picking up your baby spinach like a stack of hay and painfully enduring every bite, while you dream of your next favorite splurge. Kids are no different!
Lastly, food and drink consumption is not just a part of our survival mechanism, but it is also a social experience. We commune and celebrate life through food with friends and family. We begin to create associations between our emotions and the foods we eat. Some associations can lead to unhealthy eating habits, taking us away from food for nutrition and positive communing with others. Some of us comfort ourselves and our children with sugary or salty processed foods when we feel sad or lonely. Some of us have intense conversations during mealtimes, leading to negative associations, which affects the food experience. A parent may become upset and get involved in a power struggle over the child eating their food, which leads to mealtimes becoming an enduring experience, rather than a relaxing, enjoyable experience.
That’s a lot to think about right? Here are some tips to help you to start work on increasing your child’s food repertoire:
In today’s world, we have many food options (or at least we are led to believe we have “food options”) and it’s no wonder that parents are up against so many food struggles. Be patient and kind with yourself and your children. Your job is to present them with opportunities to eat fresh foods and their job is to eat it. May you and your children be vibrant and healthy!
Michaela E. Gordon, OTR/L
Clawson, B., Selden, M., Lacks, M., Deaton, A. V., Hall, B.,& Bach, R. (2008). Complex pediatric feeding disorders: using teleconfereing technology to improve access to a treatment program. Pediatric Nursing, 34(3), 213-d216.
Feldman, J. (2012). Joyful Cooking: In The Pursuit Of Good Health.
O’Brien, S., Repp, A. C., Williams, G. E., & Christophersen, E. R. (1991). Pediatric feeding disorders. Behavior Modification, 15, 394-418.