Roughly 50% of Singaporean children are picky eaters – an alarming statistic discovered by the National University Hospital (NUH) Department of Pediatrics and Abbot Nutrition.

The chances of a child being a picky eater only increases if they have parents who are working professionals, or if there is a family history of picky eating. However, the real question here is, apart from being a massive inconvenience for parents, is picky eating truly a problem?

The answer is yes! Picky eating in children can cause them to suffer from nutrient deficiencies, which can even lead to malnutrition. At such a crucial stage of physical and mental development, it is absolutely essential for children to maintain a balanced diet that promotes growth and wellness. It is therefore extremely important to correct picky eating in children at a young age, before this bad habit has a chance to be set in stone.

First, let’s take a look at why picky eating is so prevalent amongst Singaporean children.

Reasons for picky eating in Singaporean children

1. An underlying medical reason

For example, oromotor dysfunction, which refers to a medical condition resulting in difficulty swallowing, can result in picky eating. Children affected by this condition often opt for foods that are easy to swallow to avoid discomfort. This condition is especially common in babies who were born prematurely. Alternatively, children who experienced a lot of vomiting during their younger years may associate eating with discomfort and become extremely picky about what they eat.

The good news – addressing these medical reasons early can help erase the negative association the child has formed with food and will likely correct their habit of being a picky eater.

2. To assert their independence

Sometimes, children may refuse to eat certain foods in an attempt to exert more influence over their decisions. Basically, saying “No!” to that piece of broccoli helps them feel more mature and adult-like.

3. To manipulate their parents

Attention-seeking behavior is exceedingly common in children, and picky eating may be just another manifestation of that!

4. Hypersensitivity to food

Your child may be a picky eater due to being more sensitive to the tastes, smells, and textures of certain foods.

5. Being too full

If your child has just had a cookie, they might not be able to finish their meal. Closely monitor what your child eats, and when, to better understand their appetites and feeding habits.

Now that we have a clearer understanding of why children are picky eaters, let’s take a look at how we can correct this bad habit and help them become healthy eaters.

Helping your child become a healthy eater

When trying to correct picky eating in children, it is important to remember to create a positive eating environment for your child. This will help them overwrite their negative associations with food and create positive associations instead. The best way to create such a positive eating environment is to refrain from scolding or forcing your child to maintain healthy eating habits as this often results in them becoming anxious during meal-times – which in turn, only reinforces their picky eating habits.

Here are a list of tips you can follow to improve your child’s eating habits:

1. Desensitize them to the foods they dislike.

Sometimes, children dislike certain foods due to their texture, smell, etc. If this is the case, try preparing the food in a different way. For example, you could use garnishing or different colors to make the food look more interesting to your child. You could even ask your child to help you prepare the food to get them more interested in it.

2. Set specific meal times.

Often, children ruin their appetites by having a snack before their meal. Do not allow your child to eat outside of the designated snack and meal times. This will help them understand the difference between being hungry and being satisfied.

If they still struggle to finish their meals, take it away after 30 minutes and ensure they wait until the next meal or snack time before eating anything. This will teach them the importance of finishing what’s on their plate.

You should also aim to feed them only healthy snacks, such as bread, biscuits, fruits, yoghurt, etc.

3. Eat with your child.

Children are good imitators – if they see you eating, they’ll be more likely to finish their food too! So, as soon as your child can eat solid food, try to have as many meals with them as possible. Praise them when they finish their food; remember, positive reinforcement works wonders!

4. Offer new foods.

Children will get bored eating the same foods over and over again, so keep them interested by cooking new things for them to try out. Having more food options will limit their chances to be picky about eating.

5. Let your child choose what they want to eat.

Give them two healthy options to choose from and avoid giving in to all their requests. When your child chooses what they want to eat, they will be more likely to finish eating it.

6. Have outdoor meals.

Food always tastes better outdoors!

7. Monitor your child’s fluid intake.

Too much water right before a meal can disrupt your child’s appetite by causing them to feel too full to eat.

It is important to keep in mind that some children are just naturally picky eaters and this behavior cannot always be fully corrected. Therefore, you should have realistic expectations for your child and not expect an overnight or complete change in their eating habits.

That being said, the above tips will definitely help you help your child eat less fussily and more healthily.

Do you have other concerns about caring for your child? Please let us know so we can help you with your child care needs.