What is a fussy eater? The term ‘fussy or picky eater’ covers a range of behaviours including refusing any new food, having strong likes/dislikes about food, rejecting food unless it is beige, spitting new foods out and having a restricted intake of certain foods, especially vegetables. There are three very important points to clear up first before we explore ways in which you might be able to support your child to become less fussy.
Firstly, fussy eating can be connected to physiological (e.g. a child with hypersensitivity will notice stronger tastes or smells more readily than one without) or medical issues (e.g. a baby with reflux might become fussy as they associate food with pain) rather than your behaviour and interaction with them around food. Some of the fussiness can be followed back to caveman times – toddlers back then rejected food they were unfamiliar with as self-preservation. This is now called neophobia or fear of new foods.
Secondly, having a fussy phase particularly during the pre-school years is completely normal behaviour. Many of us will experience some sort of fussy eating and most children do grow out of it. Although while it is happening it can feel like a lifetime! Parents also worry whether the ‘beige phase’ will continue to adulthood resulting in a lack of enjoyment around food and all the social aspects this brings.
Thirdly, research has shown that fussiness doesn’t always impact on your child’s nutrition. The variety may be affected but in most cases, they’ll still be receiving the nutrition they need. However, if they refuse all types of vegetables/fruit a supplement should be considered.
Hopefully understanding this will help remove some of the angst over family feeding time especially when younger kids are involved. It is also important to remember that young children do not have a lot of control over their lives and food and mealtimes are areas where the ball is firmly in their court. That said, keeping calm and preventing the dining table from becoming a battleground should also have a positive influence on what and how your child/children eat. This isn’t always easy if you are a) rushing b) tired c) fed up or a combination of all three.
So what can you do to support and encourage younger kids to love food in the way you do and be less fussy?
Be their role model
Young kids love being like their parents – they copy how you act and what you say and are influenced by what you eat and how you eat it. If you enjoy food and eat a variety of different foods (especially vegetables) this will encourage them to follow suit. Obviously this will mean you’ll need to find time in the week where you eat together as a family. If this is too tricky during the week, aim for the weekend instead.
Don’t force-feed your child
It can be really difficult not to do this and I’ve been guilty of this myself when I just want my kids to eat! Always remember there is a division of responsibility. Your responsibility is to choose, cook and provide the food. And then probably clear it up. Let’s not forget the Family Catering Manager’s job isn’t complete once food is on the table. Your child’s responsibility is to eat the food without you taking over. Words of encouragement are fine but ideally, you are trying to get your child to listen to their own hunger and fullness cues. Breastfed babies feed on demand so children should be able to eat by themselves until they are full. Also, don’t be surprised if they suddenly have room for pudding but not all their main course. Adults are guilty of meal fatigue too. Try not to get into the habit of using distractions to help them eat e.g. no screens, phones or toys at the table.
Research shows it can take up to 15 exposures for a young child to accept a new food. So if something hasn’t gone down well the first time, don’t give up. Try it again another time or try preparing it differently. However, if you have older kids, you also need to respect their preferences and if they go off broccoli but still eat other vegetables then don’t push it.
Get them involved
Ask your child/children to pick a recipe, take them to the shops and task them with age-appropriate steps in preparing the dish. This works wonders with my own kids. If you have older children watching cookery programmes together on TV such as Jamie Oliver and Junior Master Chef can also inspire them to try new foods, flavours or dishes. It may also encourage them to get more involved in the kitchen.
Learn about food through play
Young kids love to role-play and food can feature in many ways e.g. mini kitchens, tea parties or shop-keeping. Could you get them to develop a menu of their favourite foods or do a sensory experience – taste different flavours, smell and feel different foods to guess what they are? This can be a good way to introduce new flavours and foods away from the dinner table or potential battleground.
Stay chill at the table
Mealtimes can quickly descend into a battle with frustration and anger brewing on both sides. If your child was in the mood to try something new or eat well, once they are annoyed, angry and frustrated this is unlikely to happen. Stress at mealtimes can also lead to a decrease in appetite so let’s all commit to staying chill around the table.
Watch your language
Use encouraging phrases rather than commands. Instead of “can you?”, try “you can”. This simple change instills confidence and belief in your child’s abilities and hopefully you’re less likely to get a NO! Try also using covert control which is when your parental control over mealtimes and eating goes undetected by the child. Try “Would you like some of my x, y, z ?” rather than “If you don’t eat x,y,z they’ll be no pudding”. Also instead of picking up on all the negatives, focus on the positives instead e.g. you’re sitting very nicely at the table today, well done for trying x, y or z.
Think about your child’s nutrition over a week
This approach can take the strain off mealtimes. If they haven’t eaten so well you’ll be less inclined to make them finish their meals. Always try and serve a balanced meal but don’t worry too much if one food group has been picked at rather than wolfed down. Adults have days where we eat more than others and so do children. Your child/children may not have been as active that day or perhaps something else is bothering them e.g. tiredness, feeling ill. It is important to add here that too much snacking or guzzling or milk can be problematic with young kids. If they are simply not hungry, the meal is less likely to be eaten.
Only ever cook one meal
The meal you’ve prepared is the only meal served and if this is refused, don’t make anything else. Otherwise, this sends the message that they’ll get an alternative. If your child is going on a playdate without you then make sure the parent/carer is aware of this to avoid this habit creeping in while you’re not there.
Have some fun
When everyone is tired and the chef is fed up with cooking, mealtimes are less likely to go to plan. Can you try something different every week or so to spice things up and make the experience more fun (for everyone involved)? Theme nights, make your own pizza nights, kids making decorations for the table, conversation about topics of your children’s choice, banqueting style food where they are in charge of what they put on their plate etc.
Whoever is in charge, mum, dad, babysitter, nanny, grandparents. Young children love consistency. Once you’ve introduced a ‘change’ or an approach, stick with it. Don’t introduce a change and swap to something different the next day.
To finish, fussy eating can be a frustrating and somewhat painful phase. But with some patience, consistency and positive vibes hopefully, you’ll see some change. Try implementing one of these pieces of advice for your next meal, take a deep breath and good luck!
BSc (Hons), MSc, ANutr
Registered Associate Nutritionist with the Association for Nutrition