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Is your child a "fussy eater"?

Updated: Jul 11, 2020

Parts of this article were originally written for a post on the Nurture Collective blog, and other parts inspired by a recent interview with Joanne Docherty on episode 7 of her show "Helping Your Child to Thrive" on Wellbeing Radio! You can listen to our chat here.

“Fussy Eating”

“Fussy eating” is a very interesting topic, I could talk about it for hours (and probably have done)! There are so many different dynamics involved, so many different factors, and it is such an emotional topic for parents – it can evoke so much worry, anxiety and guilt. It is also a topic that is based very much on parental perception (and can often exist solely in the mind of the parent!) – what one parent perceives as fussy eating, another might perceive as totally normal.

The term “fussy eater” is applied to the child by an adult (often the parent, but equally often a family friend or relative), and it is in my opinion a label that like most other labels is unhelpful and potentially damaging. Once you have applied the label of “fussy eater” to your child, you will then begin to treat them as a “fussy eater”, and will therefore encourage others to do so as well. So, my first piece of advice for anybody who has decided (or been told!) that their child is a “fussy eater” is to take that label off right now, and throw it away! It is not helping! Just try to view your child as a unique individual.

Promoting good habits

Having said all of the above, eating, feeding and mealtimes can often be a real struggle for many parents, dinner time often being viewed as one of the key battle grounds of parenting! Even Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge admitted recently that he struggles with his three children at dinner time sometimes! For that reason, I am going to offer a few tips and tricks to help parents foster better eating habits in their child. It is very important to establish healthy eating habits during childhood, and it is also our responsibility as adults to promote positive behaviour and language about food, eating, and body image.

My own experience

In my years working with children and families, I have witnessed numerous cases of phases of food refusal, regression, anxiety, and pickiness. These usually pass fairly quickly if treated gently and are very normal. The most common reasons for this are listed later. I have also seen a great deal anxiety and worry in parents during the weaning and solids phase, often in first-time parents who lack the confidence that they are doing the right thing. This again is very normal!! Some children do become quite fixed into certain food patterns (not without the aid of their parents!), but it may reassure you to know that children who have the most fixed eating habits often go on to be the most academically gifted! This has certainly been the case with the children I knew growing up who were very particular about their diet!

Reasons for “Fussy Eating”

It is very normal for all children to go through a phase or phases of “fussy eating” (and it it is usually a phase, although it may be hard to see this at the time!). For younger children this is often at its worst between 2 and 6, with toddlers going through their worst phase at around 3, often seeming extremely suspicious and irrational in their reaction towards foods which had previously been acceptedl! Babies are actually thought to be born with something called the “neophobic response” – an evolutionary response which makes them naturally suspicious of new foods – intended to protect them from putting dangerous or poisonous substances in their mouths! To aid later food acceptance it is helpful to do the following when weaning:

- Limit sugar at a young age (babies naturally prefer sweet, bland foods, and the source of this should be healthy foods like bananas and strawberries, carrots and sweet potatoes! Once you go down the artificial sugars path it can be hard to turn back!)

- Introduce a wide range as foods as early as possible!

Fussy eating checklist - your child might be resisting food because:

- They are teething (or for older children they might have a wobbly tooth). Certain foods might cause pain or discomfort.

- They are very tired - when I am very tired I find it hard to face a full meal, and often just prefer some toast and an early night! Children are the same.

- They are feeling ill, or have been ill, and have lost their taste for certain foods but are unable to verbalise this. (A sore throat or a funny tummy can have a big impact on appetite or what you fancy eating.)

- Is your child stressed or anxious about something else that is going on in their life? This may affect appetite, and can also provoke a desire in your child to try to control something at a time when they feel that they have no control in another area of their life. They may also regress to former eating habits or preferences.

- Dinner time dynamics (this will be a future blog post all of its own!). Dinner time can be very stressful for children – what is expected of them at dinner time? Is dinner time formal or informal? Who sits next to who? Is your child expected to answer questions about their day while they eat? Is there teasing between siblings? Is your child being judged or lectured about their eating habits, or schoolwork? If your child’s eating is going downhill – try to simplify things a little. Just keep it about nourishment.

Ten tips to improve eating habits and your child’s relationship with food:

1. Size isn’t everything

The first thing you should do if your child is struggling with food is to reduce portion size. And plate size if possible! This way you will reduce your own expectations of what you expect your child to eat, and reduce the possibility that a large plateful of food might be off-putting to your reluctant child. Cut your current portion size in half, and start from there, Celebrate small successes! Even if your child eats half a teaspoon of a rejected food this should be seen as a success!

2. Condiments and sauces are your friend

Does your child have a favourite condiment or sauce? Low sugar ketchup, low salt soy sauce, mayonnaise, pesto, gravy or melted butter can be added to unfamiliar or unwanted foods to make them more familiar, appetizing, and appealing. A dipping pot or other cute presentation can help! Try not to hide or mask foods though, as this can make things worse.

3. Healthy options

Try to keep mainly heathy foods and snacks in the house, and serve a few different healthy options at mealtimes if your family don’t all agree on food – you are in control of what appears on your child’s plate. And it won’t matter too much if your child doesn’t eat very much at lunchtime, if the next meal they have is a nutritious, energy-rich snack. Snack-time can often be less pressured than dinner or lunchtime, and your child might find snacks easier to eat. Let your child have less heathy foods and treats occasionally and in small amounts - everything in moderation. Banning unhealthy foods entirely usually results in fixation on treats and things will go downhill if rules are relaxed and then suddenly tightened again!

4. Don’t be too hard on yourself or your child

If you are worried about your child being a fussy eater, and are struggling to get them to try new foods, take a deep breath, and try to relax. This is normal, don't worry. Take your foot off the gas, slow down, and take a break from this for a while. Accept your child's current food preferences for the time being, no matter how limited they are. Stress and anxiety at mealtimes are not going to improve your child’s eating habits, and will probably make thing worse. Phases of food refusal or fussy eating are very normal throughout the early years and childhood. So just try to relax, and let your child enjoy eating whatever it is they like to eat. Always pull the plug if your child is getting upset – we don’t want tears at the table!

5. Be a good role model

Be a “good eating” role model. Eat with your child often, and set a good example by eating a wide variety of fresh, healthy, flavoursome foods. Enjoy your food! Don't pressure your child to try what you are eating (unless they specifically ask for a taste!). Try to relax around food. Are you an anxious presence at the dinner table? “Fussy eaters” will often eat better with their nanny, a grandparent, at a friend’s house, or at nursery/school, simply because the pressure is off, and the focus is not on them.

6. Involve your child with food preparation

Get your child involved with shopping for food, choosing food, preparing food, serving food, displaying food on the table, and even growing food in the garden or on the window sill. Let them touch, smell, and explore food with their senses. Even if they aren't ready to eat it yet! Food markets, allotments and farms can be wonderful places for your child to connect with food.

7. Never give up on a particular food

For babies and toddlers, you may have to introduce a new food up to 13 times before your child accepts it, or even puts it in their mouth. Try not to stress about this, and freeze tiny portions to minimize waste. For older children, you can reintroduce disliked foods periodically (explain this to your child - they may not like it now, but they might do when they are older). Their tastes will very likely change. Next time, try preparing and serving the food in a totally different way. Mash, slice, grate, chop, juice, fry, barbecue, blend or roast! The possibilities are endless. Don’t like carrots? What about carrot cake, or carrot and orange juice? Don't be surprised if in a few years’ time your child returns from a friend's house and announces that they now like a food that they have previously refused to touch!

8. Accept your child’s preferences

Accept your child's food preferences, and respect the fact that just like adults, children will have their own tastes, and will prefer some foods to others, and will find certain textures and flavours totally unpalatable. How many groups of adults do you know who all like exactly the same foods, and who all have the same dietary requirements? As adults we have total control over we put on our plates, and the freedom to go through food fads and phases – we can experiment with gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, paleo, “Veganuary”, or just comfort eat when we are feeling low. Children are little individuals, and they will go through phases too! Some are naturally more adventurous than others.

9. Use the mother-in-law/best friend approach

Tensions can rise at dinner time, and it is always useful to check your expectations and make sure that you are treating your child with empathy and respect. It can help to think about what you are saying to your child, and ask yourself if you would make the same demands of your mother-in-law or best friend. “If you don’t eat your vegetables you can’t have any pudding!” Would you say this to your mother-in-law? You would probably be a little more tactful! “I want to see a clean plate or you won’t be watching any telly!” Would you say this to your best friend! I hope not! What might you say instead?

10. Don’t impose your own food preferences on your child

The world of eating, mealtimes and food can be stressful enough for your child. If possible, try not to impose your own food preferences on to them. Let them try everything, and experience all kinds of food. If possible, do not impose a vegetarian or vegan diet on your child. Let them be free to make their own choices later. If you are trying a dairy-free or gluten-free diet, do not enforce this on your child. It may not be suitable, appetising, or nutritious. Don’t like chicken? Your child may love it. Let them be a little explorer in the world of food, and don’t be too offended if they decide they like a completely different set of foods to the ones that you prefer! One day, when they are at university, or married and in their own home, they will crave your home cooking and classic recipes!

If you would like to talk to me about your child's eating habits, don't hesitate to get in touch! A problem shared is a problem halved, and there is always another parent who is going through exactly the same thing as you! You are not alone!


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