Why eating properly is critical for fussy eaters
I saw a quote recently, “we are not just what we eat, but how we eat”. Eek!
I’m writing about this because fussy eaters are frequently struggling not just to eat variety. They are often also having challenges around eating ‘well’.
Not eating well (from a mechanical point of view rather than about variety) can have negative outcomes. For example, tummy aches and less nutrient absorption are side effects of not chewing properly.
When we have a picky eater, we think a LOT about how to get our child to eat more variety, more nutrient dense foods or just more food. But we don’t usually focus on how they eat. And yet, in not doing so, perhaps they are missing out on more nutrients.
If we can help them absorb more nutrients without increasing the number of foods they eat, bonus!
Have you ever thought about how your child chews?
Do you have a child who comes to the table, gulps down their two favourite foods and then dashes away? Or is your child forcing down things they don’t really like so swallowing big mouthfuls? Or eating food and gulping it down with water?
These habits can be affecting the way their body functions.
Why chewing properly is critical for fussy eaters
Chewing properly is important for all of us, not just children. Eating mindfully and well is good for our health. There are those who advocate for chewing each mouthful 100 times, and although we don’t have to go that far, chewing well is important.
If our child is not chewing properly, it can also be a red flag that something is going wrong.
So why is chewing properly important?
1. Saliva – our saliva is an important part of our overall digestive process. It contains digestive enzymes that begin the process of breaking down foods in the mouth.
Without saliva we could be making it much harder o for the stomach to break down some foods. Proper digestion and therefore nutrient absorption starts with the saliva in our mouth.
When we chew properly enough saliva is released to break down the food into smaller particles meaning the stomach can metabolise it properly.
It also means that the food gets lubricated so it puts less pressure on the esophagus tube on the way down and can slide comfortably down into the stomach for digestion.
2. Processing – chewing obviously breaks food into smaller pieces making it easier to both move through the digestive tract and be metabolized.
Chewing also releases enzymes that help with breakdown of the food and the digestion process. The action also triggers the release of acids and juices in the gastrointestinal tract.
Whether we are 6 months, 6 years or 60, the chewing action prepares the digestive system to process food efficiently and effectively.
The better our digestive system works, the better placed it is to absorb nutrients from food. If our child is living on a diet with limited variety this becomes even more important.
3. Stomachs don’t have teeth – if we’re not chewing properly, our stomach is having to work a LOT harder. See points 1 and 2 for how important the prep work is. It could also have some negative side-effects that may be familiar:
i) The stomach may expend up to 50% of its energy digesting food so the less it has to do, the less wasted energy.
ii) If our stomach is receiving food that isn’t properly chewed it can cause tummy aches.
iii) It can cause an imbalance in the acidity levels in the stomach which can cause problems.
iv) It can even affect body weight.
4. Air – if we are eating too quickly, gulping down food or not chewing properly, we can ingest a lot of air alongside the food. This can lead to unpleasant side-effects like bloating, pain in the tummy and gas build up and flatulence.
When we chew thoroughly and slowly it helps to release air.
But what should we do if our child isn’t eating chewing properly?
Teaching children to eat properly
What’s going to be helpful will depend on the age of your child but some of the lessons are supportive no matter the age.
1. Exploring – babies learn to chew by using their fingers (toes!), toys, teethers and whatever mum or dad’s favourite thing is. It used to be keys, now it’s phones
All this mouthing is practicing chewing and is an essential step. If your baby doesn’t mouth things or your older child didn’t it may be partially why eating may be a challenge.
If your child is not mouthing things there may be sensory sensitivities making things going in the mouth less comfortable. Rather than retreating from this, gently encouraging them to put things in their mouth is a good idea.
Using an infant toothbrush and applying firm but gentle pressure to teeth and gums can help to desensitize them, it can also be good for getting the tongue moving and reducing the gag reflex.
If they are a little older it may be dipping teethers/toys in a favourite flavour to encourage chewing on it, or when sitting in the highchair having a big carrot, for example, to chew on (make sure they can’t bite little bits off).
Lots of opportunity for these experiences is important.
2. Variety of foods – staying on purees/blended foods and/or milk for too long can make chewing more difficult later on or even mean they skip learning this skill properly.
All the practicing with teethers etc. will prepare a baby for the window between approx. 8 and 11 months when they instinctively know how to chew.
It’s important that during this time they are given different textures to practice on. The best first chewing foods are ones which melt in the mouth like wafers or baby rice crackers.
By 11 months baby should be ready to eat table foods and so the months leading up are preparing for that. They need to have had the practice in moving the mouth from side to side and biting by moving the jaws up and down (even without teeth).
3. Role model – when we sit and eat with our child, we are showing them how to eat. We can show them how we use our teeth, our lips, our tongue, and our cheeks.
It can be interesting to watch yourself eat different foods in a mirror and see how you use specific actions depending on the food.
One way to help babies learn to chew, especially if they are struggling, is to chew with an open mouth in front of them and show them what you’re doing. A bit gross, but helpful for them!
Obviously, it will depend on the age of your child. For example, some of the advice above could still be helpful up to 2 years old, and some of the advice below is also good for babies.
Desensitizing the mouth is supportive at any age.
1. Eat together – when we eat with our child, we are modeling, but we are also giving them more of a reason to sit happily at the table. Staying at the table for enough time to eat slowly and carefully is the goal.
2. Slow eating down – even in busy lives:
i) If we can prioritise time for eating and sit down to eat it can be really helpful. Gulping down food in the car or dashing to activities is the enemy of good chewing!
ii) Make a game of counting while chewing. Can we count to 15. Can we chew on one side and then the other?
3. Teach chewing – even for older children modelling how to chew can be helpful.
We can also help them to both learn how to chew and build muscles by practicing on a variety of foods. Many foods aimed at children, like chicken nuggets, require little chewing. I think of them as ‘prechewed’ foods.
It requires a lot more effort to eat a piece of steak or a chunk of crusty bread than to eat a jam sandwich with white bread. Using the jaw muscle and moving things around with the tongue are all skills that are good to practice.
Like any other muscle, those in our mouth need the exercise too, so finding foods that are a little more challenging to chew on are important.
Who knew that something we take mostly for granted can potentially be a challenge?
Judith, MA Cantab, is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.
She is also mum to two boys and the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. Her dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/