How to improve behaviour and emotional challenges for a picky eater
Working with over 100 parents a year as a Feeding Advisor, I am always looking for ways to support parents with information that will enable them to make informed decisions about their child’s eating, look at goals and then gift them the strategies to make that a reality.
There is a tonne of information about optimal diets out in the ether, and I am always in two minds about sharing it. On the one hand education is power, on the other, knowing that we could be feeding our child “better” but not being able to do so can be very stressful. I am therefore always cautious about what I share.
In this case this is information that I delved into in a nutrition course I took a few years ago, focused on children’s brain development. Studies showed that increasing certain nutrient intakes had an impact on behaviour, especially for those who had challenges with emotional regulation. In fact, there were specific nutrients that seemed to be missing for children with, for example, ADHD and that a child with the same nutrient deficiencies may mimic some of the same symptoms seen.
This latest study focuses on Omega 3’s and how they can make a difference to children who are challenged by inattention, nervousness, hyperactivity etc. : https://www.amenclinics.com/blog/new-evidence-on-omega-3s-for-behavioral-problems-in-children/ The results dovetail with my research on the topic.
Omega 3’s are deemed essential fatty acids as our body needs them, but is unable to make them. It is therefore important that we have them in our diet. The best sources of these are unfortunately in oily fish – not top of the list for most picky eaters.
Supplements can also be a bit of a challenge as they are often not easy to eat and can leave an unpleasant aftertaste.
Although eating oily fish would be top of the list, we can find Omega 3’s in other foods, so maximising intake of those is helpful. Let us look at a list of foods that contain Omega 3’s and discover ways we can support our picky eater to be able to manage them.
10 Foods containing Omega 3’s
I will start with fish, as that is the best source but do not despair if that is not on the menu as there are a tonne of other options.
i) Salmon – is not a massive step for some picky eaters. You can also fry the heck out of it, so it is really crispy, which works for some (including my father!). Or add some flakes to potato cakes (adding cheese can be a way to sell these). The same can be done with tuna.
ii) Mackerel, sardines and anchovies are probably more of a challenge! I have blitzed anchovies into sauces to give them a salty flavour and this works perfectly in, for example, a coconut-milk based curry.
iii) Prawns could be worth a whirl. I started my boys on these using a mayo/ketchup-based dipping sauce and tiny pieces of cut-up prawn.
Other fish – this may be a little easier. Many children are OK with small fillets of fish. Even fish fingers contain some Omega 3’s and certain brands incorporate fish oil into the batter to boost the amount too!
2. Seaweed/nori/spirulina. The seaweed sheet snacks are surprisingly OK for many picky eaters as they are dry, salty and crunchy. If you haven’t tried them they are definitely worth a whirl.
Sushi of course comes wrapped in nori and that can also be a win.
Spirulina has a very strong taste (I personally find it a challenge) but small amounts can be added to smoothies, for example, without a noticeable change in flavour. It does make them go green though.
3. Flax or linseeds – I find these fairly easy to use as they disappear into many foods. They are often used as an egg substitute in baking for those who don’t eat eggs, so any cookies, muffins or cakes are a good place to add a spoonful or so.
Some bread already has linseeds added or you can add them to your own.
I also use ground linseeds to bind foods, so they are part of my meatballs or burgers (instead of flour or breadcrumbs – or as an addition).
Remember, our body cannot digest them whole, so they need to be ground first (or buy pre-ground).
4. Chia seeds – these again can be used as a thickener. I put into my spice grinder to make into a powder and then use to thicken fruit purees, sauces etc. As it doesn’t really have a taste or texture once ground it’s a handy addition.
Chia seed puddings could be an option for those children who like porridge or those sorts of desserts.
Hemp – I buy the flakes which are crunchy and sort of a cross between a seaweed sheet and a cornflake! They are a pretty palatable snack and of course, dry and crunchy.
5. Cold pressed olive oil – this may be easier than we think, as there is no reason not to use for cooking.
6. Pecans, walnuts and pumpkin seeds. Nuts can be a win for a fussy eater as they are texturally palatable. You can always dip in chocolate or add to ice cream.
They are an easy addition to most baking. You can swap part of the flour for ground nuts. If nuts are a no, ground pumpkin seeds (pepitas) can be used instead – but can turn things a little green!
You can also add to smoothies, sauces or mince as a thickener.
7. Eggs – if you are on a mission, look for the ones where the chickens have been fed Omega 3’s and so the content is higher in the eggs too. If straight eggs are a challenge then foods that contain eggs like pancakes, custard and baking are OK too.
8. Avocados – there are quite a few picky eaters who are OK with avocadoes. If not, you can add to smoothies and puddings.
9. Soy beans or edamame – edamame are quite crunchy so although they don’t seem like they’d be a winner, you may be surprised!
10. Spinach or other leafy greens – I get that green leafys are not usually top of the wish list however, I have found baby spinach leaves can be a surprise winner!
Baby spinach is texturally easier than lettuce and many of the other leaves. You can also use scissors to cut into cool patterns.
If spinach on its own is a challenge, adding to a smoothie or baking is sometimes OK.
Hopefully this has not stressed you out more, but instead given you some inspiration as to other ways to boost Omega 3’s for your child.
Judith is mum to two boys, a tween and a teen and is the author of Creating Confident Eaters. My dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
I delight in showing parents how to get picky eaters eating in simple, gentle, practical steps that anyone can master. I graduated from Cambridge University and have qualifications in nutrition, parent education and am a trained telephone support worker for ParentHelpline. I am currently working towards qualifying as a psychologist. I would love to understand more of the “why” behind fussy eating and to eventually spearhead research in this area.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/