Fussy Eaters; Causes and Solutions

Why do some children become fussy eaters? Perhaps your child used to eat well and then suddenly, like a light switched off, they no longer want to eat the foods they love. Let’s discuss reasons for fussy eating and what you can do about it.

Introduction

Pre-motherhood, did you vow that your child would never be a fussy eater, and that you’d never be a “chicken nuggets and fries” type of mum? Even during pregnancy, maybe you chose to eat as healthy as possible not only for yourself but also so your child might develop a taste for vegetables. All seemed to go well as your infant grew, right from when you started solids, and you thought you were one of the lucky ones. Then, your infant became a toddler and became the dreaded term “fussy eater”. Now, you might be at a loss for what to do, like so many other parents. We’re going to help you out by delving into some reasons children become picky eaters and what you can do to improve your child’s eating habits.

fussy eaters
Fussy eating is part of children’s development – most children will go through a fussy eating stage

What is fussy eating?

Fussy, or picky, eating is when your child doesn’t “like the taste, shape, colour, or texture of particular foods.” https://raisingchildren.net.au/toddlers/nutrition-fitness/common-concerns/fussy-eating The positive thing to remember is that every child goes through a picky eating phase “because fussy eating is part of children’s development.” Children are looking at what they like and dislike, what is going to cause a reaction from their parents, and how much food their body needs in their current growing period.

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What causes fussy eaters?

There are a variety of reasons your child may have fussy eating behaviours. Stephanie Wood, author for Parents.com, gives us The Six Types of Picky Eaters – And How to Get Them to Eat. https://www.parents.com/toddlers-preschoolers/feeding/picky-eaters/the-picky-eater/

  • The first type is labeled the regressor, which was touched on a bit earlier. This is the kid who loves all kinds of foods until they hit the 18 to 24 month mark and suddenly they don’t like anything they had previously eaten. This could be due to decreased appetite, being hungry for one meal but not for the next. Or it could be they figured out that not eating gets a reaction out of their parents.
  • The second type is the flavour hater; the kid who enjoys bland food with little seasoning or spice.
  • The third type is the guzzler, one who would rather drink than eat. While water and milk are important for your child’s diet, this could cause your child to not receive the proper nutrients needed for their growing bodies.
  • The fourth is the super feeler, a kid who is overly sensitive to texture whether it be rough, smooth, or slimy.
  • The fifth type is the gagger, one who gags when trying new food. This might be another ploy to gain your attention, or they might have an oral-motor or sensory problem.
  • The sixth type is the untouchable. Though this kid enjoys different foods, they can’t stand if any of it is touching. Chances are your child falls under one of these categories; identifying which one may help in discovering how to best proceed with your child’s picky behaviour.

Are fussy eaters born or made?

Sarah DiGiulio, author of NBC News article What Makes Kids Picky Eaters – and What May Help Them Get Over It, reiterates the fact that every child goes through a “fussy eater” stage. As for whether these fussy eaters are born or made, evidence suggests “that fussy, picky or choosy eating habits were linked to and affected by everything from personality traits to parental control at mealtime to social influences to maternal eating patterns. Or it could just be your kid being, well, a kid.” https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/what-makes-kids-picky-eaters-what-helps-them-get-over-ncna846386 Let’s all read that last line one more time, shall we?

“8 out of 10 Australian parents are concerned about their child’s eating habits. It’s not unusual for a child to love a particular food one day and refuse it the next. Refusing new food tastes and textures is common in children and it’s often a behavioural issue..”

Healthy-kids.com.au

When should I be concerned about a fussy eater?

Fussy eating shouldn’t become a concern unless your child is completely refusing a specific food group for a long period of time. If this happens, chances are they’re lacking the nutrients they’d receive from those foods. Another concern might be if your child is “the gagger,” the fifth type of picky eater previously mentioned; this could stem from an oral-motor or sensory issue. If this is a concern, don’t be afraid to contact the child’s paediatrician and discuss it with them.

fussy eaters
Keep an eye on your child’s growth – they may be getting more nutrients than you realise – even if they are a fussy eater

What do you do when your child refuses to eat?

Though we’d love to see our kids eat every single piece of food we put on their plate, that isn’t the reality. When your child refuses to eat, don’t push the issue. They’re often looking for a battle over control, and as hard as it is not to assert yourself as the dominant role in the relationship, the situation will only turn into a power struggle. Try and recognize that they know their bodies, thus their appetites. Don’t change up meal and snack routines, especially by making your child their own meal. They’ll come to expect this and their willingness to try diverse foods will decrease even more.

How do I get my fussy eater to eat?

The Mayo Clinic gives ten ideas to help you achieve a peaceful and productive mealtime:

  • Respect your child’s appetite
  • Stick to the routine
  • Be patient with new foods
  • Don’t be a short-order cook
  • Make food fun
  • Recruit your child’s help
  • Set a good example
  • Be creative
  • Minimize distractions
  • Don’t offer desserts as a reward

https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/childrens-health/in-depth/childrens-health/art-20044948 Try these techniques and hopefully you’ll see a miracle happen at your dining room table.

Can fussy eaters change?

Yes. Repeat that to yourself, mama. Yes. Fussy eating is a stage in every child’s development even though the reasons for why children are picky differ from one child to the next. Keep in mind, however, that even though children usually grow out of it, they will be more prone to trying new things and eating healthy food if they have already been exposed to them.

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Children’s tastes WILL change as they grow – make sure you continue to offer a variety of healthy foods

How do you get fussy eaters to eat vegetables?

 If you have a garden at home, include your child in growing and harvesting the produce. They’ll develop a sense of pride and accomplishment that will transition to the kitchen. Continue giving your child ownership by allowing them to help with meal prep, washing and then cutting up vegetables using a kid-safe utensil. Or, to mix things up, cut the vegetables into different shapes using cookie cutters. Any way to present vegetables to your child in a new and fun light could change the way they see healthy foods. It’s so important to continue to provide healthy food options in varied ways and have patience. Sometimes, a child will need to be exposed to a food 10-15 times before they will be willing to try it.   

fussy eaters
Make mealtimes a positive experience and TALK to your kids about the food that’s on their plate – where it comes from, how it tastes, how it feels, what food group it falls into.

How can you cook for fussy eaters?

It is very important that you cook the same way for your fussy eater as you do for yourself and the rest of your family. Fussy eaters need to see good examples so be sure to set those as parents. Make mealtime a family affair, no TV or distractions, and stress-free. This last one is especially hard to do as you worry that your child isn’t eating enough or receiving the proper nutrition. But if your child is stressed or picks up on your tension, they are less likely to have an appetite.

What is the best way to approach fussy eating?

The best way to approach fussy eating is with the calm assurance that just like sleeping through the night, toilet training, tantrums, and numerous other obstacles, this is another milestone in a child’s life. Patience, understanding, and staying the track are key to not only teaching your child to want and love a diverse amount of food but also to keeping yourself calm as your child battles for control.

If there are certain nutritious foods that your child loves, continue to offer those foods but also ensure you are continuing to at least offer new foods on a regular basis. Encourage your child to at least TRY the new food by having a lick and a bite and then have conversations about foods too! Talk about where the food comes from – whether it grows on trees, under the ground or comes from an animal. Spend time eating together and make meal times a positive experience for the whole family. You can take into consideration your child’s food preferences but be sure not to cater ONLY for their food preferences by making them a separate meal.

It’s important to offer healthy snacks in between meal times and monitor your child’s growth. If you have discussed your concerns with your child’s doctor and been proactive in terms of assessing your child’s physical growth on the spectrum for their age, and they are a healthy height and weight for their age – there may not be too much need for concern.

As a reminder and encouragement, the Healthy Kids Association of Australia has a nifty PDF you can print out that gives facts, ideas, and tips on how to handle fussy eating. https://healthy-kids.com.au/parents/developing-positive-eating-behaviours/solutions-for-fussy-eaters/

Fussy eating can stem from many reasons: a need for control, aversion to texture, would rather have milk than food, tiredness, stress, or even perhaps an underlying issue. Though the fussy eating stage is hard for everyone, Diguilio leaves us with some wise words to remember, “Parents control what food is available and when and where meals and snacks are eaten; kids determine how much they eat and whether to eat.” https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/what-makes-kids-picky-eaters-what-helps-them-get-over-ncna846386

“Parents control what food is available and when and where meals and snacks are eaten; kids determine how much they eat and whether to eat”

Sarah DiGiulio – nBCNEWS.com

Are there books to encourage healthy eating habits?

There are so many! Some of my favourites are:

  • Oliver’s Vegetables by Vivian French
  • No, I will never not ever eat a tomato (Charlie and Lola)
  • The Vegetables we eat by Gail Gibbons
  • Handa’s Surprise by Eileen Browne
  • I can eat a rainbow by Olena Rose

Conclusion

We as parents can’t make our children eat, but we can show them what healthy eating looks like and then lead by example. As the overused saying goes, this too shall pass, and mealtime will become a time for peace and, possibly even, exploration.  

Most children will have aversions to certain foods but there are also usually many other healthy foods they are willing to eat. Pick your battles, enjoy favourite foods together, encourage children to just TRY new foods and always have healthy options available so your child can work out what their taste preferences are. Your child’s eating habits WILL change as they grow.

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