This article was inspired by a question posted by a member of my facebook group (parenting picky eaters) which I run with Australian feeding specialist, Simone Emery. A parent was worrying about what to put in her daughter’s lunch box when she started pre-school.
I completely understand why this would be a cause for concern. Watching your little one step out into the big, wide world is hard enough, but when they have a specific challenge - like food-anxiety - this move towards independence can feel like a really big deal.
I replied to the post and realised that underpinning my response, were two core questions which need to be born in mind when supporting children who are very picky eaters:
- How can we help minimise any food-related stress at school or daycare?
- How can we help them grow in confidence when it comes to their eating?
"She'll eat when she starts school!"
Have you ever heard people tell you that your picky eater will start to eat better when they get to school or pre-school? For some children this is true. Research shows that neophobia (fear of new foods) is a common experience in early childhood and that social influences (eg. what other children are doing) can make a big difference when it comes to helping children accept new foods.
However, there are more factors at play when it comes to very limited eating, and these can be more powerful than the positive influence of other children eating nearby. First, anxiety. If a child is worrying about mealtimes, this alone can be an appetite suppressant, making eating tricky from the get-go.
Temperament plays a role too: children who are cautious or sensitive by nature are often picky eaters. These children may take longer to warm up to new situations and people; for them, starting school could be extra hard because of all the novel experiences they are faced with. Being around other children in a new environment is not necessarily going to encourage them to eat more, because the whole situation is just too much for them.
Finally, scientists have found that sensory sensitivity has an important role to play in the acceptance of foods. All children are different and not all picky eaters will have a high level of sensory sensitivity, but many do. This means that they find certain kinds of sense-data difficult to integrate. Maybe smells or tastes are overwhelming to them. Perhaps they struggle with how some textures feel in their mouths.
Communal dining areas are full of sensory challenge - there is the noise of many children chatting in a confined space, there are often strong smells and lots going on visually. This is not an easy environment for some children to eat in!
Given that we can’t rely on children’s eating improving when they get to school or pre-school, we need to do our best to support them when considering what foods to send in from home. Here’s how:
My lunch box principles for picky eaters
When your child starts in a new setting, at first, only send their safe foods. This is because when they are dealing with a big change, it’s important that they don’t have any extra challenges inside their lunch box. Once they are settled, you can include things that are not on their safe list (if this doesn’t distress them) just to give them some valuable exposures to new foods.
Always include a couple of safe foods
Never send a lunch box full of things that your child doesn't reliably accept. It's so important that they can trust that there will always be something available that they can eat. This will help them relax at mealtimes, which in turn, will support their eating.
Aim for variety
Variety? I know - that’s not easy when you are working with a limited number of safe foods. Do what you can. Try to rotate your child’s safe foods in a nutritionally sensible way. Include foods you may associate with other meals, like some dry cereal your child likes at breakfast time. Try really hard not to get into a rut where you send the same thing every day.
Change it up
Look at your child’s safe foods and make whatever changes you can, in a way that does not cause a problem for your child. Again, the goal is to help them slowly become comfortable with variety. If you send square sandwiches, cut them into triangles, fingers or circles some days. If you usually buy one brand of crisps, try the same shape and flavour from another brand. If you send carrot sticks, send carrot rounds instead.
Work with your child’s setting
It is essential that staff understand your child’s needs and that you are working with them as a team. To find out more about this, read this article where I look closely at how to make sure that your child’s teacher or key-worker is on-side. I also explore this in detail in my new book, which is all about how early years professionals can support a child’s relationship with food. Working with staff is all about good communication - don’t be afraid to speak up and advocate for your child.