Q. My two-year-old son seems to be stuck in an eating rut. He only eats a handful of items each day and refuses to try new foods. I’ve tried bribing, punishing, ignoring his actions, and letting him go hungry, but none of these approaches seem to be working. He continues to request chicken nuggets, chips, grapes, yogurt, and raw carrots. What may be the problem and what can I do about it? I’m so frustrated!
A. Oh mama, I feel your pain! I have been there as a mother and often see parents dealing with this issue within our practice. You are in a tough spot as so much of our daily routine and social experiences revolve around food. The struggles you have with your son’s eating habits sound like a “food jag.”
A food jag occurs when a child will only eat a small group of foods day-after-day at each meal or snack time. The child may also refuse to eat other foods on his plate and appear to be scared to try anything new. Most children will experience developmental food jags at some point, but for the majority, it is not long lasting or permanent.
Some ways that you can help your child during a food jag include:
Continue to offer the foods your son rejects to increase his exposure to them. Many children require eight to 10 exposures before they decide to try a food.
Children are more likely to try foods when they are hungry. Keep snacking between meals to a minimum to increase your son’s appetite at mealtime.
Let him help
Invite your son to help make the meal. Allow him to stir, mix, and taste the foods you prepare. His participation will enable you to increase his exposure to different foods without the pressure to eat them.
Make small changes
If your son only wants to eat a peanut butter sandwich each day, try adding a different food to the sandwich such as banana slices. Small changes like this will allow you to work your way up to him eating a whole banana separate of the sandwich.
Change the focus
Make family dinners less about the food and more about the people at the table. The dinner table should be an enjoyable place to gather and talk. Focusing on the day’s events rather than what your son is or isn’t eating will decrease the emphasis and attention placed on his plate.
Once you have experienced a food jag, it is certainly not a place that you desire to return to with your child. Here are some ways to prevent it in the future:
Bring variety to the table by making slight changes to the foods your son likes. Serve different brands of the same foods. Vary the shape and sizes. Cook preferred foods in different ways or introduce new flavors.
Avoid offering the same foods daily. Rotate foods so that each item is only offered one or two times a week.
Do not force feed
When presenting new foods, encourage your son to engage with it first. Let him touch the food, smell it, give it a kiss, or even take a bite of it without pressuring him to swallow. Exploring foods without the pressure to swallow allows a child to become familiar with them.
Offer small portions
When presenting your son with new foods, keep the portion sizes small to avoid overwhelming him.
Be an example
It is important to use positive language when discussing your son and his food habits. It is also key for him to see that you are eating a variety of items and trying new foods as well.
Food jags can turn into bigger issues if a child begins to drop preferred foods for good. Some children may reject so many foods that they only eat a few items and their diet becomes very limited impacting their nutritional intake.
If your son’s food jag seems to be more permanent, requiring a lot of work to get him to eat, you may want to seek help from a pediatric feeding specialist. A feeding therapist can create an individualized feeding therapy program to help a child regain lost foods as well as try new foods without creating so much stress at mealtimes.
Try implementing some of the strategies I’ve offered above to see how your son responds. If you find that mealtimes continue to be challenging or become even more frustrating, then I encourage you to seek out help.
Allison Crumpler is a speech-language pathologist and the director of clinical compliance for Raleigh Therapy Services, Inc., a multidisciplinary pediatric therapy practice in North Raleigh. (919-791-3582)