When Fussy Eating Is Not Just A “Phase”

Would you classify your child as a fussy eater? Most kids have food likes and dislikes and usually broaden their diet when the start to develop more mature taste buds and grow out of fussy eating. However, some kids continue having limited food choices in later childhood; and new research has found that this continued fussy eating may boil down to a child’s way of taking “control” and kicking back on “helicopter” parenting.

New research from Dr Megan Pesch, a paediatrician at the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in the US has just been published, and she has found some very interesting findings about food choices in children. It was a four-year study of 317 mums and their young children, and where she analysed their eating habits and she found that only about 29% of children ate everything their parents offered them. 14% of the kids on the other hand were classified as picky eaters, and only ate simple beige foods like cereal and mac n’ cheese and shunned all veggies. These kids were still picky at age 9, and Dr Pesch was trying to establish why these habits were so hard-wired and they were not growing out of this fixed eating pattern.

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Does fussy eating Affect Their Health?

Health-wise in this study, the fussy eaters tended to be slightly more on the skinny side than the good eaters, but none were extremely underweight. However, there were more concerns about the nutritional value of what they eat and if their diet had potential for creating nutrient deficiencies. They also tended to be quite constipated, and this can also affect a child’s appetite. Additionally, they tended to be more sensitive children with a higher degree of anxiety.

Does parenting style count?

Dr Pesch found that long-term fussy eating may occur because parents have tried to push their kids into eating foods they don’t like or stopped them from eating the ones they do like to eat, like sugary foods. She found that the more a child is pushed to eat things they don’t like when they are little, the pickier they will be later in childhood. On the other hand, kids whose parents imposed fewer restrictions around food were less picky in the longer term.

She concluded that kids are less likely to “grow out” of fussy eating after the age of four if you have forced them to eat when they are little. Pesch, who is a mum of three, knows how hard it is to feed kids, but her advice is not to force your kids to clean their plate or make them sit at the dinner table until they eat a certain amount of the food and you should certainly avoid bribing them with food.

An accompanying article by Nancy Zucker of Duke University School of Medicine and Sheryl Hughes of Baylor College of Medicine say that these fussy kids probably have thousands of negative memories about food such as conflict over meals, unexpected tastes and discomfort and that it is important to let go the emotional need to force their a child to taste something – instead focus on building happy and positive experiences around meal times.

What positive things can you do to encourage better eating?

It’s important to make kids feel comfortable with food and make mealtime enjoyable and fun so it can brighten up the child’s mood around food. Here are some of my ideas:

Make it look fun – choose fun plates, bowls and cutlery, use cookie cutters to make the food look more fun and appealing. Maybe have some happy uplifting music playing gently in the background.

Include your kids in the shopping – rather than taking them on the boring long weekly supermarket shop, think about taking them to food festivals, markets and farm shops where they can smell wonderful food and get to taste things in an unpressurised environment.

Let them help in the kitchen – kids love to spend quality time with their parents and enjoy helping with food preparation – don’t panic if they won’t eat the food you made together to begin with, it will happen one day.

Let them experiment – kids love getting messy in the kitchen and making “experiments” and “potions”.  Even if they are not making a proper recipe it’s OK, playing with food helps them become a lot more comfortable with eating it.

Vary family meals – most of what we perceive as our sense of taste is actually driven by our sense of smell, so start to cook lots of interesting family meals so that the picky eater gets used to lots of different foods smells in the kitchen.

Eat as a family as much as possible – this may be tricky during the working week but prioritise this at the weekends. If you look like you are enjoying your food and having a fun time, this will rub off on your little one.

Keep on trying – children sometimes need to try a food up to twelve times before they like it. Try every week or so with zero pressure for the child to eat a food, and one day they might be curious and give it a go.

Start young – it is thought that babies have a “taste window” window during the first few months of weaning where they will accept most flavours and textures. This is why giving your baby a huge variety of different foods from around 6 months can make such a difference to future diet choices. Home-made baby food has the potential to give your child a much broader diet in terms of texture and taste than pouches of jars and this is the main reason why cooking from scratch for babies is so important.

My approach with cooking for babies is to allow independence from the start and offer them finger foods, puree and mashed foods to see which ones they prefer and find easier to eat. I always make the foods lovely and tasty with herbs and spices that helps educate the taste buds nice and early on. It’s all about tiny tastes when they are that little, so have fun making lots of different foods and make them yummy enough so you can enjoy mealtimes together right from the start.

Our Clinical Experience

While this research  is interesting, the origins of fussy eating are very complex and in my clinical experience, I find that the parents of picky eaters are not always the pushy ones, and in fact, often quite the opposite; they often have incredible patience, and are very in tune with their child’s dietary choices. What we often find in our clinic is that there is much more going on than just the parenting style, and when we run nutritional evaluations we find that they are low in minerals like zinc and iron which are critical for forming a healthy appetite and taste buds. An out of sync gut microbiome due to antibiotic or reflux medication use, or a constant sore tummy can also drive picky eating – we find that kids tend to only choose the foods that feel comfy in their tummy when things are out of sorts in the gut. We also help with sensory kids to help rebalance things, so they don’t find tastes and textures so troublesome. You can read more in our series of blogs on severe picky eating to see if this might be an issue for your child.

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  1. Hi,

    My son is 3.5 years old and a fussy eater. He seems to dislike certain textures and also seems so active that sitting down to a meal seems to bore him, despite being hungry.
    We need to work at all of this and your blog is very helpful. However, I was wondering if there can be any associated health issues such as low blood sugar?
    He keeps having explosive tantrums, screaming and very irrational and I think it relates to hunger as it often happens after nursery where he doesn’t eat much.
    I am trying to bring meal times earlier and giving him a snack before this happens, but I don’t see other children behaving this way despite being hungry or fussy. Have you experienced this with any patients?

    Many thanks in advance, Charlotte

    1. Hi Charlotte. We do find that low blood sugar can really affect the mood and this is one area of a child’s health that we check at our first consultation. Sometimes we organise blood testing if it is extreme in case hypoglycaemia is happening. On the days he goes to nursery try and get as much protein and fat as possible into him at breakfast as this makes quite a difference to their mood afterwards and keeps them going for longer – things like sneaking nut butter into porridge or pancakes or serving a couple of eggs make a good start if he likes these kinds of things to eat. We would be more than happy to help. Lucinda