How to help a slow eater, especially a picky one!
One common complaint about picky eaters is that they eat too slowly. Often mind-numbingly, the food could evaporate more quickly, slowly.
Children eating very slowly is very, very frustrating. Especially when we are tired, we are busy and often because we have other places to be or other things to do. This pressure keg can inadvertently create a control issue too.
Is this your child?
– They chat about anything and everything and there is zero focus on the food
– The food gets pushed around the plate or forms fantastical patterns, but little actually gets into the mouth
– They are up and down at the table and EVERYTHING is more important than the eating
– Food gets held in the mouth for an age
– You are looking at 30 minutes minimum for them to eat and generally it is double or triple that
What is ideal?
This all depends on the age of your child and what your family norms are. I do know that, in general, the majority of the food gets eaten in the first 20 minutes and very little after that. 30 minutes, for me, is a good benchmark for finishing a meal.
One study found that if a toddler stays at the table for more than 30 minutes, they burn more calories than the extra they ingest. Wow!
I know that when you have a very picky eater, or a little one, or a child that seems very light for their age, it is so tempting to see every mouthful eaten as critical. Unfortunately, if this spills over into unhelpful practices it does work against us long-term.
What is happening?
The first step to resolving most things is to identify the issue. Why is your child eating so slowly? I know it is very tempting to say things like “they have always done this” or “I am a slow eater” and use that to explain it away.
But, I feel it is a good idea to look really carefully at what’s happening at each meal for a week and see if you can spot any patterns.
I am going to list some of the common reasons why a child may be a slow eater and you can see which of these resonate for you. From there you may find some ways to counter some of the challenges.
Why is my child a slow eater?
There may be one reason, there may be a combination of many. Which of the points below would tick boxes in your household?
1. Your child is not hungry. Or not hungry enough. Is it first thing in the morning and they are still groggy sleepy, or did they have a bottle 30 minutes prior so are full of fatty, filling milk?
It is common for children to be ravenous after school/creche/Kindy and so want to demolish everything in the cupboards. How much is your child really eating before dinner?
Or, are they driving us crazy as we’re desperately attempting to get a meal on the table so we’re throwing packets of crackers at them?
2. They are full. This could be because they ate too soon prior to the meal. Or, it could be because they guzzle water or milk before eating. It is easy to fill up a tummy with liquid and then not feel hungry.
Children can get full very quickly if they are not used to eating meals. If they are a “top up” eater where they graze throughout the day, it gets more difficult to eat a proper meal as the stomach is not expecting it.
Having a small appetite can be circular. We do not eat properly, so our stomach shrinks so we cannot eat a big portion, so we eat less and the cycle repeats.
3. We have been topping them up with food throughout the day and by the time we get to dinner they have had sufficient calories. Yes, it is possible to eat enough during the day so there is no need to have a big dinner and so a child only nibbles on what we provide.
4. There are distractions. This could be TV, media or toys. Our child is focused on other things besides the food and the eating.
5. The food is inappropriate or not to their liking. I remember taking Max, then 2 years old to my Aunt’s house. She had a quinoa salad full of everything from olives to capers. It was a challenging meal to contemplate even for many adults and a very hard sell for a toddler.
Here I am certainly not advocating cooking exactly what our child loves to eat at every meal, but being very realistic about what is manageable.
6. Our child has lost interest or is bored. It is really common for children who are very selective eaters, to get less and less enthusiastic about food. When we see the same foods over and over again, we do get bored.
If we are eating merely to fuel and not for pleasure, again food can lose its appeal.
7. As a parent, we are in the middle of the eating equation. The meal is all about us. Are we able to get our child to finish the whole plate? Can we get them to eat their broccoli?
8. We are giving them unintentional rewards. This maybe attention. Because they are eating slowly, we are focusing on them. Even negative attention is attention!
Or, perhaps because they are so slow to finish breakfast, we let them eat in the car or even swap the Weetbix for a breakfast biscuit.
The ultimate reward? Not wanting them to go bed hungry, so offering “option B” for dinner, which is a favoured food.
9. Mealtimes and especially dinner is when our child gets our undivided attention. Often in busy days this is the only time we are sitting down and focused on them, and they do not want it to end.
Or, we are rattling around doing a million other things and they are looking to drag out the time that we spend sitting at the table.
10. Power. Eating slowly can be a form of resistance. It can be a child exerting their control over you as they know it really pushes buttons. This may not be conscious, as such, but a means of gaining additional attention.
11. Control. Children are powerless in many things and so having control over something like food can help restore some of the balance that leaves them feeling disempowered in other areas.
12. Anxiety. It is common to channel worries and fears into food. This can manifest itself as hesitation and being slow to eat.
Spending some time critically evaluating which of these reasons (or others that you think of) that may play into WHY your child is eating slowly, can be extremely useful.
Knowing that your child is probably not hungry enough or is vying for attention is helpful as then we can look for solutions to those key problems and over time support better eating.
How to help
1. Making sure our child is hungry coming into meals:
i) If they are over 2 years old, then leaving at least two hours before a main meal is a great idea.
ii) Limiting drinks and especially fatty, filling ones for a period of time before the meal
iii) Not allowing gallons to be drunk at the table (a classic, food avoidance trick!)
iv) Serving water rather than milk as a drink with meals
v) Limit or even eliminate grazing so our child is eating at regular intervals, not “topping up”
2. Offering small portions to begin with. A large plateful of food looks far more challenging and can be very off putting. We can always add more.
3. Being present. If we are with children at the table, they often do mess around less and focus more on the eating than when we are half there and half completing other tasks.
4. Prevent distractions like TV, media or toys taking focus away from the table and the eating. I appreciate that often children do sit more easily and even eat more when distracted, but long term it is not a great strategy for raising a competent eater.
5. Controlling the environment in a positive way. Young children are often not particularly comfortable at the table as they are on an adult sized chair. Or they are at a little table, but it is not the most comfortable place to sit. This can be really distracting and cause a lot of unnecessary squirreling around. Maybe it is the dog stealing concentration, or our child is hyper focused on other things happening.
Eliminating unnecessary negatives is always a plus.
6. We are definitely not short-order cooking but it is important the food is appropriate for our child. If they are unable to mix any foods, then only having a lasagne or a stew is unrealistic. We make allowances for everyone who comes to the table. Not having any food there that can be enjoyed does not make for a pleasant mealtime.
I would not want to be at a dinner party where none of the food was things I enjoyed.
7. Boredom is common among picky eaters and this reduces our interest in and love of food. Part of ensuring this does not happen is serving different things. Even if things are not currently getting eaten, having a piece of tomato and some carrot on the plate alongside the sandwich makes it look different.
What small changes can we make to our child’s food to change it up slightly? Is it a new flavour of chippies or a roll instead of bread?
8. Removing ourselves from the eating equation. This is often a lot more challenging than we anticipate. Many parents of a fussy eater believe they must be there pushing, spoon feeding, cajoling or reminding their child or food will not get eaten. Or it will but they will be twice as slow. Or they will not eat the foods we really want them to eat.
Long term us taking away that independence from our child prevents them learning to eat in a confident way. Trusting them to make their own decisions within boundaries is a big part of my parent programs and long term stops us being in the middle of the eating.
9. Think carefully about whether we are inadvertently rewarding behaviour that we would like to stop. It is so easy to do it without realising it! Every time we focus on a negative behaviour, we are giving it airspace. As challenging as it can be, changing that for specific praise for any behaviour that is positive can produce far better results long term. Even if it is “thank you for washing your hands before coming to the table” or “I love the way you are holding your cutlery”.
10. Are mealtimes the only time that our child gets our full attention? Believe me, I get it, I often feel like I need a clone just to get everything done in a day!
I remember speaking to a foster mum with 3 children and their mealtimes went on for ages, as in hours. It was not about the food at all, but all 3 children wanting more time with the new mum. Once we offered personal time for each with a book after dinner it did speed up the meal.
11. Power. Driving us crazy with snail paced eating can so easily be a control thing. It is almost guaranteed to get a reaction – even a negative one. If we are staying at the table the whole time until they finish, bonus points for them! But, this may not be a conscious decision on their behalf, it may have started as a power/control issue but now is just months of habits and it is very challenging to break that without us making the change.
If this is happening, then it is a behaviour rather than a food issue.
12. Anxiety around food is common for children. If our child comes to the table and is uncomfortable, it is logical and natural for them to delay eating. If eating is challenging, why not put it off? If you feel this is the case, how can we reduce that discomfort for our child?
13. Direct (non-food) rewards can be a positive and a negative, so it is important to think through the possible upsides and downsides. If you have a younger child, then letting them know you will have time for a special book or bath after dinner if you can finish by a certain time can be a good motivator.
For older children offering additional screen time as a one-off motivator can be very revealing as to what they are able to do if there is incentive.
We do though, have to be careful not to create a new power struggle in doing this.
14. Verbally setting time limits and parameters that we stick with. Give a warning before dinner comes to a close.
15. Inserting a snack could be a way to take pressure away from us as parents and thus in turn our child. If we are worried that our child is not eating enough to get them through the night without waking, for example, then cutting down on time spent at dinner but adding in supper can be positive.
It is important though that supper is filling, not thrilling. It is definitely not something that is an “option B” and more desired than dinner. It is something that can be eaten but is not a favourite.
Although, as with many issues, there is no magic fix, working through these lists and looking at what we can do differently is definitely worth a whirl! I would love to hear what you have tried and what has brought success.
Sharing wins with other parents may enable them to progress too.
Judith is mum to two boys, a tween and a teen. 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 a Masters degree in Psychology. I would love to understand more of the “why” behind fussy eating and to eventually spearhead research in this area.