Do you have a fussy or picky eater at home? If so, you’re not alone, it is one of the most common nutritional worries for parents. We all want to make sure our children have the nutrition they need to grow, develop, run, play, fight off illness, excel at school… but it’s not always that easy!
Periods of fussy eating (also known as ‘neophobia’, the rejection of both unfamiliar and previously enjoyed foods) are very normal, tending to peak between 2-3 years of age. Here we highlight a few reasons behind fussy eating and provides tips for broadening your children’s palate and helping them develop a positive relationship with food.
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Reasons babies, toddlers and children may be become fussy with their food:
- Extra Taste Buds: Children have many more taste buds than adults so each taste is more intense than we experience, which may contribute to rejection of certain foods, especially strong, bitter tastes.
- Growth Spurt: A child’s palate naturally narrows down with developmental leaps, they return to what they know is ‘safe’ whilst their body and brains are getting to grips with new ideas, concepts and movements.
- Illness: Your child may go off their food with teething or illness, potentially before you have realised they are not well!
- Stress: Stressful periods can impact children just as they can adults. Butterflies in their tummy may mean they don’t feel like eating.
- Food Addictions: Biochemically some children, particularly those with learning difficulties, may become “addicted” to foods such as wheat and dairy, and additives such as MSG. Once these are removed, palates often start to widen.
- Zinc: Nutrient deficiency, especially zinc, can reduce our sense of taste making foods bland and taking away the enjoyment of eating, or propelling children to gorge on sweet and highly flavoured foods to get some taste stimulation.
- Needing Less: It is also worth noting that you may see a decrease in appetite as baby grows into a toddler and pre-schooler as growth from 2-5 years happens at a much steadier pace than the first 18 months.
It is always worth considering if there is something else going on that you are able to address, or if this a phase that may pass quickly before worrying too much about a fussy eater. Whether short or long term, there are things we can do as parents to help children overcome a fussy eating phase and, most importantly, avoid creating a negative environment that may perpetuate their fussiness.
1. Listen to your child
Children tend to be far more in tune with their bodies than us adults, knowing instinctively when they are hungry, full and how much they need. Listen to this, whether it’s a baby who clamps their mouth shut or a child who says they’ve had enough. As parents, we can easily overestimate how much children need. Repeatedly encouraging children to eat more can begin to interrupt their innate sense of when their tummies are satisfied and have had enough. Empower them to decide how much they want to eat.
It is also important to listen to any symptoms your child may be telling you about (e.g. a sore tummy). Does this happen after certain foods? Or at certain times of the day? By asking questions and discussing it you can help your child to make connections between the food they eat and the affect it may have on their body.
2. Promote a relaxed mealtime environment
Work on developing a relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere at meal times. It is easy to fall into a routine of coercing children to eat their food which may upset them or create resistance, turning mealtimes into a stressful experience for parents and children. Children quickly build negative associations and may become anxious as the next meal approaches, increasing the likelihood that they will resist eating. Remove any pressure or coercion and try to keep your own frustrations in check. Aim to make mealtimes fun and sociable, eat together as a family, talk about books, games, what you are planning to do at the weekend, invite friends for tea and keep mealtime relatively short (e.g. 20 minutes) to save emotions building up.
3. Exposure, exposure, exposure
Keep exposing children to new, different and disliked foods. It is tempting to avoid disliked foods or stick to meals you know will be eaten; however, research shows that repeated exposure helps to develop acceptance. It may take 15 exposures before a food is accepted so don’t give up! Offer new and disliked foods with no expectation that they must try it, encourage new meals regularly to get children used to trying new things, repeat ingredients, cook them in different ways which can change texture, taste and potentially acceptance (e.g. roast carrot sticks, carrot and turnip mash, steamed carrot coins) and serve disliked foods alongside foods you know they like.
Variety sits side by side with exposure. Time-pressed parents often get stuck in a rut of using the same few familiar foods or meals again and again. Look to include a wide variety of foods in your family diet to increase exposure to new foods and excite children’s senses.
- Taste – sour, salty, spicy, bitter, umami and sweet.
- Texture – crunchy, chewy, soft, slippery, bitty, smooth.
- Colour – including a rainbow of colours – red, orange, yellow, green, blue/purple and white.
All foods, whether fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, contain different nutrient profiles so we need to eat a variety to get all the nutrients we need. You may want to try blitzing additional ‘hidden’ vegetables and even meat and poultry into curry or pasta sauces to increase the variety and nutrient intake of your child’s diet, helping to replete potential nutrient deficiencies that may contribute to fussiness. It’s also good to talk to your children about variety. You might explain to them that they had a banana for morning snack so need to choose something different for their afternoon snack or use a wall chart to tick off the colours they have eaten in a day.
5. Give children choice
Research shows that giving children a few different vegetables with a meal and letting them choose which they eat increases acceptance, variety of foods eaten and overall consumption. Ask them which vegetables they would like on their plate when you’re serving, or present food in bowls on the table allowing a pick-and-mix approach where your child chooses what they put on their plate, rather than plonking a full plate down in front of them. This could be a bowl of porridge at breakfast with a variety of toppings to choose from (e.g. blueberries, grated apple, orange zest, cinnamon, ground flax seed, desiccated coconut, seed mixes), a picnic-style lunch of chopped cucumber, pepper sticks, avocado, grated cheese and ham or a roast chicken with various vegetables and gravy. You are still in control of what food is available for your child to eat whilst giving them an empowering choice.
It can take time to unpick and change fussy eating habits. Don’t despair. Take it one step at a time. Offer real delicious healthy wholefoods repeatedly, without pressure, and focus on empowering your child to listen to their bodies, make their own choices and develop their own tastes, likes and dislikes because the choices you are giving them are healthy choices.
How do you tackle the fussy feeding? Look out for Part Two of this article which will focus in on ideas for broadening your children’s palate and helping them develop a positive relationship with food.