‘Fussy’, ‘picky’, ‘choosy’ eater!

By Claire Burgess, Family Consultant, Bespoke Family Ltd. (www.bespokefamily.co.uk)

The term fussy eating (or sometimes picky eating) is commonly used to describe when children start to refuse food, but I would prefer to use a more positive reference, and this would be ‘choosy’ eating.  So, do you have a choosy eater?  Have you suddenly noticed that your child, who has eaten pretty much everything up until now is now refusing food that they have always eaten?  Or have they narrowed down their choices to only eating certain foods, perhaps just beige food such as pasta, potatoes etc (which is very common), or only eating certain vegetables (if any) or things such as cucumber/tomatoes etc.  If so, it might help to reassure you if I say that it is completely (and developmentally) normal for children to go through this stage.

However, it is how we as adults respond to this stage which is critical in ensuring that you work through this and come out on the other side! Often when our children become choosy eaters we panic, as we think that they are going to lose weight or wake in the night because they are hungry – we also we just want our children to eat the things we make for them as this tends to make us all happy and more relaxed.  Our reactions to these situations are watched and observed by the child and they will also become very aware of any worry and panic that you show and can often play on this.

The reason for our child’s reaction to how we behave goes way back to our ancestors when they had to forage for food.  If a family went out foraging, the adult would always eat something from what they had brought back first to check that it was safe to eat; if they didn’t die or become ill they would then feed this to their child.  While we are very lucky that we don’t have to risk life and limb to check that food is safe any more (!) this instinct is still there in our children’s genetics telling them to watch the adult in order to know if the food is safe.  The difficulty that we have is that we are not eating with our children in the same way we were even 20 years ago let alone thousands of years ago! If we are not eating with our children then how are they able to see this process and trust that the food that they are eating is good to eat.  This phase of choosy eating is known as the neophobic stage; it commonly starts any time from approximately 18 months to 2 years old and it is very dependent on the individual child (and parent reaction) as to how long this phase lasts. Neophobia is a word for fear of the new, but even if the food is not new to them they can become wary and refuse to try it.

How to help through this stage?

  • Firstly and most importantly don’t make mealtimes stressful for you or your child. It can very often lead to the adults getting stressed and only focusing on what your child is or is not eating.  Children love attention, it doesn’t matter if this is for positive or negative attention so if they can see that their eating (or not) is getting a lot of attention, they are going to be keen to continue to receive this.
  • Make sure that mealtimes are a social event and not about the food.
  • Don’t keep your child at the table for any longer than 30 mins, if they haven’t eaten in this time they are not going to!
  • Avoid giving alternatives! If your child sees that he/she can get alternatives they will hold out for this and normally anything you quickly get ready for them as an alternative is likely to be less nutritious than you would like them to be eating and tends to be ‘nicer’ than what you are offering! Giving alternatives can lead you down a path that can be very hard to come back from.  When you can see that your child is starting to go down this route, remain calm and continue to cook meals that you would normally. Always make sure that there is one thing on your child’s plate which you know they like or enjoy to eat (perhaps give a little more of this than you would normally so that when they look at the plate they see that the majority of it is filled with the food they like rather than the thing that they are not so sure about at the time) but continue to offer foods which they are showing signs of refusing.  Day after day you might find that they continue to refuse the food but one day you will suddenly find that they will try it again.  If they refuse it don’t be tempted to bribe your child to eat it, bribery is not going to work in the long term and very often we will bribe with ‘sweet foods’ which then starts the association that you have to eat ‘not nice foods’ in order to get the nice foods!
  • Avoid hiding foods in other foods as this can cause distrust in your child. Your child needs to know what they are eating and some children will want to have foods which don’t touch each other (this is also ok!).

And finally some tips to help encourage your child to eat what you are eating!

Introducing sharing plates and self-serving is a great way to help children learn to self-regulate.  Initially your child might take too much of one thing and not enough of others but this is a life skill that they are learning – they need to know that what they have on their plate they need to eat.  By doing this over a period of a couple of weeks you will soon find that your child will have started to regulate their portions.

Alternatively, you can try just having one plate which you both eat from – many of us have experienced that when we sit down with a child and they have their plate and we have ours, the child only wants to eat from our plate!  Why not have the same plate and just use it as a sharing plate, I guarantee that your child will eat better.

Having playdates and friends/family over for mealtimes so that they are social occasions can encourage your child to eat the same as everyone else.

Eat meals with your child so that they can see you eating too.

Make meal times interesting – think about whether they always need to be sitting at the table to eat – have picnics in the house/garden or introduce ‘construction’ meals such as wraps or making sandwiches.  Yes, this idea and some of the others can be more time consuming on your behalf but constructing their own meal, for example, can provoke a child’s interest into their food and again makes it more of a social occasion.

The final thing is not to lose faith.  It can be so frustrating when your children don’t eat what you have spent precious your time making, but remember that you are not alone, many children go through this stage and your perseverance and a bit of extra time doing some of the things I have suggested above will pay off in the end.  You are setting your child up for a life of enjoying all types of food and, when they do, just think how good that will feel!


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