Ask the expert: My son will not eat food unless mashed

Our three-year-old boy is even refusing to eat those tasty things like pizza or sausages. Help!

Help your son to experiment with food by allowing him to smell or lick new food, and to put it in and out of his mouth. Photograph: iStockphoto

Help your son to experiment with food by allowing him to smell or lick new food, and to put it in and out of his mouth. Photograph: iStockphoto

 

Q I have a three-year-old son who refuses to eat any meal put in front of him unless it’s a snack or has been fully mashed. If we do manage to get a morsel into him, he can hold it in his mouth for more than an hour rather than swallowing it.

He attends a creche and after initial problems that went on for a few months he will now eat some of his dinners there most days, though once again they have to be mashed.

He refuses things like pizza or sausages. In creche they spend one afternoon making a pizza and he is the only child not to eat it. He will eat snacks such as rice cakes, slices of bread, yoghurts and fruit pots as long as there are no “bits” in them.

He absolutely refuses to try anything new, even a sweet. They say it takes 20 times to introduce a new food to a child and to offer it along with the foods he likes. But how do you do that when he doesn’t eat off a plate and everything is mashed together? Or when he refuses to even look at the meal to begin with?

Should I continue to mash everything so that he’s at least eating something? Or, at three years of age, should I insist the food items are separate on the plate in bite sizes?

He has no issues with chewing that would require items to be mashed or pureed. Is it a taste thing? A mental block? What is the best way to approach it so that he will eat meals and also try new foods?

I am worried the lack of nutrition will affect his physical and cognitive development.

At the moment he is of average weight, height and is a very smart little boy who appears to be advanced in his verbal and reasoning skills. Perhaps that’s because he eats for the creche! But we would like him to eat for us too.

A Parents worrying about fussy eating and getting into battles with children about this are very common in early childhood. Concerned parents like yourself want to make sure their children are getting the best nutrition, and it can be hard when children reject your carefully prepared food without trying it or when they eat food elsewhere and not at home.

In encouraging young children to develop balanced diets, the key is to adopt a patient, gradual approach that proceeds at your son’s pace.

In almost all cases of fussy eating, the children are developing fine and when you do a careful audit of what they are eating, they are getting a balance of the nutrients they need though from a limited range of foods.

In your own situation, the main issue seems to be that your son is refusing to eat traditionally presented meals and will eat only foods that are mashed or without “bits”.

Below are some ideas for making progress.

Tune in to your son’s sensory preferences

Some children have a particular oral sensitivity that means that certain tastes, textures or unpredictable food movements are uncomfortable for them. This might also mean they hold food in their mouth or in their cheeks often as a means of dealing with the sensations in their mouth and distracting themselves as they eat.

Most children simply grow out of this over time, though they might be slower developmentally to move from mashed food to certain solids than other children.

Gradually expand the range of textures

do this gradually, at his pace. Continue to serve him the textures he likes to eat (mashed food, smooth yoghurts, bread and rice cakes) and then gradually introduce new textures. Often the best way to do this is in parallel. You can put the food he loves on his plate and then a small amount of the food beside it, such as a small carrot piece, and so on.

Give him permission to take food in and out of his mouth as he experiments. For example, it is okay for him to smell or lick an apple slice and then put it down or to put it in his mouth and then take it out again. If he does not like something he tries, give him permission to spit it out and praise him for his efforts – “Good boy for trying the banana slice.” Be careful not to respond with: “That is disgusting.” This all helps him feel in charge of the eating process, which will encourage him to experiment more.

Try to make eating new foods fun

Get him involved in healthy food

Dr John Sharry is a social worker and psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus programmes. His new book, Bringing Up Happy, Confident Children: A practical guide to nurturing resilience, self-esteem and emotional well-being, is now available. See solutiontalk.ie for details

Next week: Part 2 of building your child’s self-esteem series: The power of a developing a unique connection with your child.