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Tips for Fussy Eaters with @childrensdietitian

When children begin to pick pieces out of the meal they have been served or start to showcase a resistance to foods they used to enjoy, it can be difficult to manage and find a way to overcome it. As parents, we inevitably feel frustrated with a sudden change in attitude to different food groups but there are proactive ways to help reintroduce your child to those foods – and not just at mealtimes.

We spoke to Lucy Upton, Specialist Paediatric Dietitian and Feeding Therapist of @childrensdietitian to discover the root causes of food rejection and potential paths to reintroduce problem foods in a positive way so that your child doesn’t feel overwhelmed or pressurised. From eating together as a family to using sensory play to build positive pathways to the brain, there are many ways we can help our children to expand on their diet.

Read also Lucy's feature on her Tips on How to Ensure a Healthy Diet for your Children

12 Jul 2021

Lucy says…

Fussy or picky eating in children is undoubtedly one of the top worries from parents when it comes to kid’s feeding and nutrition. With so much focus on making sure children are getting enough of the right nutrients for growth and development, it’s completely understandable that parents find their anxiety levels rising when children start refusing foods or turning their nose up to meals. Add on top of this the stressors of wasted food, coping with a mealtime ‘battle ground’ and watching a child’s dietary range become more limited, it’s no wonder parents are often desperate to seek a solution.

Whilst fussy or selective eating can occur at any stage during childhood, it’s typical to see food refusal and food neophobic behaviours (reluctance to eat and fear of new foods) peak in the early years between 18 months and 3 years of age. Fussy eating, for most children, results in consumption of a reduced variety or quantity of foods, and rejection of other foods. Refused foods can be those which were familiar to the child previously as well as the unfamiliar. Whilst it might feel like everyone else’s children eat every food placed in front of them, parents are not alone in their experiences. Fussy eating is documented to affect as many as 30-60% of children. The good news, however, is that for most children these eating behaviours don’t persist into later childhood and rarely have an impact on long-term growth or health.

Why so fussy?

But why does this stark change in children’s eating habits occur? There are a number of factors which contribute to fussiness with food in children. These include:

- Age – children hit a stage of food neophobia at around 18-20 months. This is probably a throwback to when we didn’t want independent toddlers helping themselves to unfamiliar foods from bushes and trees!

- Learnt experiences around food or feeding – for children who may have had a trickier start with feeding such as reflux or food allergies, it can be more common to see feeding difficulties.

- Genetic factors.

- Sensory sensitivities – some children are more receptive to how food feels, smells and tastes.

- Parental influences. 

 

Whilst there is sadly no magic wand to transform fussy eating behaviours overnight, there are some key strategies that can help to reduce mealtime stress and support children away from food fear to food freedom.

1. Exposure

It’s easy to stop offering foods your child has got into a habit of refusing – let’s face it, no one likes wasting food or celebrates every time it ends up on the floor. In reality, children often need multiple and regular exposures to foods before they taste it. For some foods this could mean as many as 10-15 exposures or more. Exposure doesn’t just mean offering a food at a mealtime, other positive exposures can include food play, shopping for food together, cooking, reading books which talk about food or even sitting down together to watch a cookery show.

2. Eat together

Role modelling and watching other children or adults consuming foods has a huge potential to support children with exploring food and expanding their diet. Research shows that family mealtimes can influence food preferences, improve intake of certain foods groups (e.g., fruit and vegetables) alongside having multiple other benefits on a child’s physical and emotional health. Children so often lead from example and positive role modelling. Shared mealtimes are also a perfect opportunity for that all-important exposure. Even if a child isn’t eating a food, you can talk about its shape, colour or texture to help them learn about it. Try to enjoy the shared time together – make mealtimes good times.

3. Explore eating expectations

Parental worry about portion sizes and/or foods that are eaten during a mealtime are often a driver for increased stress or pressure at mealtimes. Parents often overestimate how much children need to eat or try to over encourage the foods they feel their little one isn’t eating enough of. In turn this leads to the slippery slope of behaviours like bribing, using food as rewards, dragging out mealtimes for hours, using distractions like screens or offering extras or top-ups.

 

Following a ‘parent provides, child decides’ approach pulled from Ellyn Satter’s ‘Division of Responsibility’  can be a great starting point for mealtimes. This encourages parents to consider their role at mealtime as providing the routine of meal and snack times and what is offered – but then allowing the child to decide what foods and how much of those they want to eat. Children are fantastic self-regulators when it comes to appetite. This, alongside the rapid changes in their growth and development, will mean it’s normal to see lots of changes in how much your child chooses to eat day-to-day and week-to-week.

4. Meet them in the middle

When offering new foods to fussy eaters, it can be really helpful for children to see and have available a ‘safe’ or preferred food at that mealtime too. For this reason, it is important to try to offer new or less familiar foods alongside a preferred food for your child. Combine a ‘love it’ food with a ‘learning it’ food as part of each mealtime. It’s also important, where you can, to rotate through which preferred foods you offer children at mealtimes during the week. Children who have the same safe foods daily actually risk dropping these completely over time – a term we call food jagging.

5. Language

The impact of verbal and non-verbal communication at mealtimes is easily overlooked but can have a huge effect on how children learn about food and their mealtime experiences. Try to keep all foods on a level playing field – food is just food. Other behaviours to steer clear of are:

- Pressure to eat e.g., ‘one more bite’

- Consequences attached to eating e.g., ‘if you do/don’t eat this, you can/can’t have’

- Force-feeding

- Describing foods with emotive words or opinion, e.g., ‘disgusting’, ‘yummy’, ‘eat it, it’s delicious’

Instead, try to talk to children about food with neutral descriptive language, such as colours, shapes, or texture of foods (‘these peas are green and sweet’ instead of ‘just try these peas, they are good for you’). Young children may enjoy imaginative language and play around foods, whereas older children may prefer a scientific exploration of foods. 

Pay attention to your body language at mealtimes too. Anxiety is infectious and, if you’re stressed, it’s likely to be quickly picked up by your child. Appetites tend to disappear in times of stress - especially for children - so try to keep calm and collected at mealtimes (even if inside you can feel the bubbles of frustration, worry or stress).

First images by @childrensdietitian

Follow Lucy Upton, Specialist Paediatric Dietitian & Feeding Therapist | Instagram I Facebook | Website

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