Healthy eating involves consuming a wide variety of nutritious foods in the right amounts. Naturally, ensuring good nutrition for children is a priority for many parents. Sometimes, though, preparing meals and snacks that emphasize wholesome choices does not necessarily mean children will consume them. Young children frequently develop eating behaviors that concern parents.
Two common eating behaviors in children are food jags and food aversion. The term food jag refers to the practice of eating just one food over time. For instance, a child may only want to eat boiled potatoes for every meal. Food aversion refers to a refusal to try or to eat certain foods. Children with food aversion are often simply referred to as “picky eaters.” There are ways to address both of these issues. Furthermore, they often naturally resolve themselves over time.
Food jags and food aversion in children are not typical symptoms of serious medical issues or psychological problems. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), such eating habits are a normal part of childhood development. They offer a way for children to assert their independence and to exercise some control over what goes on in their daily lives (NIH).
Addressing Food Jags
If your child is only interested in eating a single food meal after meal, the recommendations for how to handle this issue might surprise you. According to the NIH, the best thing a parent can do is to offer the desired food along with other nutritious choices, as long as the food preferred by the child is healthy and not too time-consuming or difficult to prepare (NIH). Within a relatively short period, the child will usually start to consume a wider variety of foods.
If the food preferred by your child is not healthy or takes a substantial amount of time to prepare, offering it at every meal is not realistic or desirable. Instead, offer other nutritious foods at meal and snack times. As a parent, it’s important to realize that your child is not going to starve just because you don’t provide his or her preferred food. Even if your child eats next to nothing at breakfast, he or she will likely make up for it at some point during the day. Try not to worry too much if your child eats less during certain meal times.
Addressing Food Aversion
One of the most important things to remember if your young child is reluctant to try new foods is not to make this issue a battle. For instance, you should never use bribes, bargaining, threats, or punishment to get a child to try something new. Instead, simply continue to expose him or her to new foods on a regular basis. This will give your child the opportunity to sample new foods if he or she wishes. There is a good chance that over time your child will taste and accept a wider variety of foods, which can make meals easier for both children and parents.
Eating an extremely limited number of foods can, over time, result in the child not getting the nutrients he or she needs for optimal body functioning and good health. This is especially true if the foods preferred by the child are unhealthy. However, there are formulas for infants, toddlers, and children that can provide these nutrients. Vitamin supplementation is another possible option. Nevertheless, if your child is displaying symptoms of malnutrition, make an appointment with his or her pediatrician.
Symptoms of malnutrition can include:
- skin pigment changes
- hair loss
- inflamed, dry, and/or cracked tongue
- skin that is extremely dry, pale, and thick
- gums that easily bleed
- unexplained rashes or bruises
- bones that feel soft
- tired joints
- discomfort with light
Keep the following tips in mind when dealing with food jags or food aversion in children:
- Children look up to you and follow your example. Therefore, you should also make an effort to consume a wide variety of nutritional foods at meals.
- Do not feed children junk food between meals as snacks. If your child gets hungry in between meals, try offering him or her fruit juice, milk, yogurt, or some raw vegetables or fruit. You want your child to feel adequately hungry for dinner.
- Make mealtime a family event.
- Serve healthy snacks or meals to your child’s friends. Children are influenced heavily by their peers, so if their friends eat the healthy food, your child may begin to as well.
- Serve an appealing variety of foods of different colors and textures.
- Don’t give your child portions that are overly large, and don’t force him or her to keep eating if he or she feels full.
As a final note, while dealing with a picky eater can be frustrating and worrisome, you should try to keep things in perspective. This is a normal part of growing up for most children. However, with your help, they will most likely outgrow these behaviors and establish healthy eating habits over time.