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Identifying, handling picky eating in children

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Photo credit: Kidvite.co.za

“If I got one naira for every time I heard ‘my child is picky and won’t eat,’ I would be retired before 35,” says clinical nutritionist, Ifeyinwa Omesiete. It is so common, yet each parent thinks their child is worse off than the next. Picky eating is when a child is selective about what they want to eat and 90 per cent of children born in the 21st century are picky about what goes into their mouths.

The Bachelor of Science holder in Nutritional Sciences from the University of Minnesota and a certificate in Child Psychology from CAPA International Education, England, identified types of picky eating.

Birth – Whether it is breastfed or formula-fed; the child is selective about how much they will eat, when they will eat and what vehicle they prefer (bottle or breast). This kind of picky eater isn’t very common, but if this is observed in a child as early as one month, the parents need to take extra steps in correcting it before the child establishes a habit.

Six months – At this age it is recommended that solids are introduced. Now dependent on the taste, exposure of nutrients and environmental factors, a child can become picky about food. Omesiete noted that there are four major factors that can cause immediate and intentional rejection of meals. They are:

Taste: If a child before six months is breastfed and the mother’s diet was heavily based on processed foods, carbs and lacks variety; the child’s palette can be poorly developed. This can lead to rejection of foods that have an unfamiliar taste. If the child was given only formula, the child is also more likely to reject solids because their palette is built on the contents of the formula they are used to.

Delayed weaning: If a child’s diet is solely on breastmilk beyond seven months, issues like separation anxiety can set in, especially if the child spends a lot of time with their mother. This prevents the child from accepting foods easily, just because it’s doesn’t taste like what they are used to.

Traumatic experience : Illnesses, change in location, frequent change of hands that care for the child, postpartum depression, absence of mother or lack of bonding between child and mother can cause a child to reject food or become selective about meals they chose to eat.
Nutrition deficiency: This is determined mostly through blood tests. A child who is deficient in vitamin B 12, zinc, iron or magnesium will have loss of appetite which presents as picky eating. It is important that you heck with a pediatrician or nutritionist who can prescribe plant-based supplements that would increase the levels of these vitamins and minerals.

Omesiete who is passionate about paediatric nutrition and alleviating malnutrition in Africa, consults for Carib Health Limited in Lagos where she creates recipes that foster healing and development. She stressed that early identification of picky eating can be curbed with the following steps:

. Quality vs. quantity: In Nigeria, most children are fed at least three times a day and offered a snack. This is perfectly fine but some children prefer eating smaller meals more frequently. The most important thing to note is feeding foods that are nutrient dense each time. This will automatically induce weight gain, reduce waste and make a child more excited about meal time.

. Understanding the child’s preferences: Most times children are able to show you better than they can tell you. For example, a child may prefer foods that are savoury vs sweet. This automatically eliminates many cereals and even foods like cheese milk and sweet potatoes. If a parent is able to identify this, they can offer foods that are always savoury so the child eats more often.

. Consult with a Nutritionist: Speak with a nutritionist who can help determine whether it is a nutrient deficiency or a phase. A nutritionist would provide a meal plan that is nutrient dense and offers a variety as well as monitor clinically the progress the child makes developmentally.

. Be consistent and persistent: Research has shown that it takes 15 non-consecutive times before a child fully accepts unfamiliar tastes and foods. So giving a child beans twice and concluding that they don’t like it does not make the child picky. Parents should keep trying to offer the foods as often as possible in different forms till the child accepts it.

. Be creative: Children are curious and love diverse colours, shapes, and tastes. Making meals in different shapes or forms will encourage a child to try the meal even if it is something they don’t like. For example, a child who doesn’t like oats as porridge may love oats as swallow because they enjoy different soups.

Omesiete, who birthed the first Pediatric Nutrition Challenge in Nigeria that educates mothers on the importance of proper nutrition, concluded that picky eating can be frustrating but with proper knowledge it can become a thing of the past.


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