Healthy eating involves consuming a wide variety of nutritious foods in the right amounts. Naturally, ensuring balanced nutrition for children is a priority for many parents and caregivers.
Sometimes, though, preparing meals and snacks that emphasize wholesome choices does not necessarily mean children will actually eat them.
In fact, young children frequently develop eating behaviors that concern their parents and caregivers. 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 want to eat only boiled potatoes for every meal. Food aversion refers to the refusal to try or eat certain foods (1).
Children with food aversion are often simply referred to as picky eaters.
There are ways to address both of these issues, but they often naturally resolve over time.
Food jags and food aversion in children are not typically symptoms of serious physical or mental health conditions.
Such eating habits are a typical 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.
Addressing food jags
If your child is interested in eating only a single food meal after meal, the best thing to do is to continue to offer a varied and nutritious diet, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
You can offer the desired food along with other nutritious choices, as long as the food preferred by your child is healthy and not too time-consuming or difficult to prepare. Within a relatively short period, they will usually start to consume a wider variety of foods (2).
If the food preferred by your child is not nutrient dense or takes a substantial amount of time to prepare, offering it at every meal may not be realistic or desirable. Instead, offer other nutritious foods at meal and snack times.
As a parent or caregiver, it’s important to realize that you may have to offer your child’s preferred food while slowly introducing new choices.
Addressing food aversion
One of the most important things to remember if your young child is reluctant to try new foods is to not turn this issue into a battle.
For instance, you should never use bribes, food rewards, bargaining, threats, or punishment to get your child to try something new. Instead, simply continue to expose them to new foods on a regular basis.
This will give your child the opportunity to sample new foods if they want. There’s a good chance that, over time, they will taste and accept a wider variety of foods, which can make meals easier for both them and you.
Also, keep in mind that your child may become interested in trying those new foods if they see you eating them.
Eating an extremely limited number of foods can, over time, result in your child not getting the nutrients they need for optimal body functioning and health.
Extended periods of voluntary restriction of food that results in loss of weight or failure to grow at an expected rate should be discussed with your child’s pediatrician or a healthcare professional. Referral to a registered dietitian may be helpful as well, if you have access to one.
Malnutrition is more likely if the foods preferred by your child are not nutrition dense. However, there are formulas for infants, toddlers, and children that can provide missing nutrients. Vitamin supplementation is another possible option.
If your child displays symptoms of malnutrition, make an appointment with their pediatrician or another healthcare professional if their pediatrician is unavailable or you don’t have access to one.
Symptoms of malnutrition can include (3):
- weight loss or lack of weight gain
- lack of growth or slow growth
- delayed development
- dull hair
- pale skin
- bleeding gums
- tendency to get sick more often or take longer to get well
- cuts and scrapes that won’t heal
- trouble concentrating
- lack of interest in food and drink
- low energy
- behavioral changes including irritability
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. So, you should also make an effort to consume a wide variety of nutritious foods at meals.
- Involve children in the meal prep process: washing, sorting, stirring, etc.
- Do not feed children highly processed foods between meals as snacks. If your child gets hungry in between meals, try offering them fruit, milk, yogurt, cheese, nuts, or some raw vegetables with hummus. And keep portions small. You want your child to feel adequately hungry for dinner.
- Decide to not offer short-order cooking — everyone eats the same meal and you won’t make something different just for your child.
- Make mealtime a family event.
- 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 them to keep eating if they feel full.
- Provide at least one “safe” food at each meal. This is a food that the child is comfortable with already.
The other important thing to remember is that making food choices into a power struggle can ultimately cause other concerns. Children can become even more determined to have control over food choices — and they will win this battle.
In general, your child will likely tire of eating peanut butter or macaroni and cheese after some time. They will decide to try something else, especially if they see others enjoying different options.
Continued battles over food and the child’s desire for control can lead to disordered eating later on. Avoid discussing food choices in terms of weight (“Eating that will make you fat/fatter”) because this can also lead to disordered eating.
Discussing food choices in terms of nutritional benefit is fine (“These carrots are good for your eyes” or “This protein will make you grow and be strong” or “This fruit will give you energy to run fast”).
While dealing with a picky eater can be frustrating and worrisome, try to keep things in perspective. This is a typical part of growing up for most children. With your help, they will most likely outgrow these behaviors and establish balanced, nutritious eating habits over time.
If you’re having trouble getting your child to eat and you’re worried about their intake, consult a healthcare professional. They can recommend a dietitian or nutritionist who specializes in pediatric nutrition or can guide you.