Strategies to support fussy eaters
Where does fussy eating come from?
Children develop fussy eating for various reasons. Whilst for some, it is a stage that they pass through, for others it may indicate sensory challenges around food or intolerances or medical issues. If fussy eating persists and you are concerned about a child’s eating behaviours or nutritional intake, please ensure that you refer to a medical professional. Some other issues which may lead to fussy eating are:
- Past history of physical reasons for difficulty in eating– some children genuinely have physiological reasons why they cannot eat some foods or particular textures of foods
- Changes in appetite associated with overall growth– just like grown ups’ our food tastes can change – however a change of food tastes which is managed in a negative way can lead to fussy eating so finding a balance is paramount
- Extreme sensitivity to taste, smell and texture of foods– children with sensory development can find some textures, tastes and smells unbearable – this is different to just being fussy
- Dislike for the colour or texture of a certain food– as an adult do you have a food which you just cannot bear to have in your mouth? For me it’s runny eggs, for others it can be certain fruits, meats or grains
- Imitating a parent’s (or someone else’s) picky eating-if someone in the household is fussy it increases the chances of a child developing fussy eating habits
- Reaction to attention received– behaviour can be reinforced by both positive and negative attention – our reactions can embed a behaviour
- Behavioural association with mealtimes– ever noticed that certain situations impact your child’s behaviours? Meal times can be a prime time for changes in behaviour
- Reaction to punishment– children can associate certain foods with being punished, perhaps there was a negative event and a certain food was served, now every time they see that food they recall the event (think about the food you ate when you last had food poisoning – do you look at it the same now?)
- Reaction to ‘food rewards’ given to ensure food consumption– if your child knows that they get cake if they eat their vegetables they will only eat their vegetables if they get cake…..
- Past experiences where food groups were limited– for children who have come from households where food was rationed or restricted they can become very fussy about eating particular foods. This is often found in children who have experienced neglect or come from households where food was limited.
So, what’s the difference between a fussy eater and a food refuser?
Fussy eating is often a behavioural trait and is a common stage in child development. Most children will go through a phase of fussy eating around 2-3 years old and then come out the other side. Common traits of fussy eating can include:
- Complaining often about what is served
- Refuses food – especially vegetables/meats
- Pushes, hides or throws food during mealtime
- Eats the same food for all the meals
- Resists trying new foods
- Eats exceptionally slow
- Eats sweets and fatty foods instead of healthy foods
- Has bouts of eating only one thing all day
- Snacks instead of eating a meal
- Often throws tantrums at mealtimes
Food refusal can be developmental (often peaks at 2yrs) or sensory based. In some cases it can be phobia based (neophobia). Children who are food refusers will react different than fussy eaters. It can include;
- Children being rigid about what they will and will not eat
- Feeling anxious about trying new foods
- Being anxious about being around new foods
- Crying at the sight of certain foods
- Spitting food out once tasted it
- Often throws tantrums at mealtimes
- Refuses new foods
Children with food refusal will often require a referral to a health visitor, paediatrician or nutritionist to support implementing appropriate strategies to diagnose the underlying cause (if it is developmental or sensory based) or support (if it is phobia based). In the case of fussy eating by first appreciating that we learn behaviours from both positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. To change our children’s thought patterns to food we need to retrain them to feel differently, this means that we need to work in collaboration with children to introduce foods confidently and support this with appropriate responses.
Positive Reinforcement includes:
- Role modelling
- Offering opportunities to try
- Positive attitudes
- Positive language
- Focus on conversation not what is being eaten
- Making meal times a family affair
- Patience with slow eating
Negative Reinforcement includes:
- Shouting/getting cross
- Pointing out the weaknesses
- Talking about their food behaviours in ear shot
A study of university students whose parents had insisted they ate a food as a child found that 72% of them now didn’t eat that food. It emerged that they perceived the parent as the “winner” and themselves as the “loser”. Now that they’d left home and it was up to them, they chose to “win” by not eating it.
Some simple strategies that can be used at mealtimes to support resolving fussy eating and opening up a wider food base include:
- Give everyone the same thing at mealtimes (but their own portion sizes)
- Look at what has been eaten over the week not in a day – if all macronutrients have been eaten over the week and body weight is consistent then this is a positive.
- Children love to copy their role models – you are their greatest role model – sitting down to eat together and enjoy new foods together is positive reinforcement.
- When trying new foods offer small portions of them alongside other things they
- like and only introduce ONE new thing at a time
- If your child refuses the new food make no fuss and remove it, even if you are frustrated do not negatively reinforce the unwanted behaviour
- Avoid speaking about your child’s ‘fussy eating’ in front of them or in their ear shot
- Fussy eating and food refusal increases when children are tired or over hungry – keep meal times regular and consistent
- Cap snacks at 2 a day – filling up with snacks will increase grazing behaviours and fill up a small tummy so children do not feel the need to eat their meals
- Avoid talking about ‘food’ at meal times – sit down together and talk about enjoyable things which take the attention off who is eating what and how much
- Offer children opportunities to prepare their own meals or serve themselves from smaller bowls on the table. Some children prefer to eat one thing at a time and find a whole plate overwhelming so will refuse it as it’s too much
- If your child has friends who are good eaters invite them round for tea – do not make a fuss about their eating but allow them to model it to your child
- Be confident in your actions
- As frustrating as it is do not make mealtimes a battle ground
- Whilst most children would do anything for sugar do not use pudding or treats as a bribe for eating. It gives the message that savoury is a chore and unenjoyable so we need something sweet to get through it – this can cause negative issues with food behaviours when children are older
Overall be patient, our food tastes change all the time, one day something that we love is all we want, the next week we might have gone off it completely. The same applies to children. Trying the same food in differently prepared methods can change our reaction to it – but doing our best not to react is key.
Note – this article does not offer medical advice or diagnosis, if you are concerned about a child’s eating habits please refer to a medical practitioner for advice.
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