Fussy Eaters – why do our children go through this stage? How we can help avoid it?

Fussy Eaters – why do our children go through this stage? How we can help avoid it?

with thanks to Happy Tums

It is thought that around 40-50% of children will go through a “fussy eaters” stage and this is quite common around 18 months to 2 years. So, although your baby is probably at the weaning stage now, it is definitely a perfect time to start thinking about how to avoid selective eating as they get older and to understand how there are things we can do as parents and care-givers to encourage a positive relationship with food.

Firstly, let’s look at why our children may become fussy eaters. There are many reasons for why this may happen:

  • They learn the word “no” around this age and this can be very effective and emotive! Children naturally like attention and by saying “no” and playing up at mealtimes will no doubt get them some attention! And in some instances, the more they protest about not liking the food in front of them, the more likely it is that they will get an alternative meal – and then the cycle starts!
  • Evolution plays a part and the fancy name is “Neophobia” or “fear of the new”. It is thought that around 2 years of age was when cavemen took their children out foraging for food and taught them to be very cautious of anything new in case it was poisonous and unsafe to eat.
  • Pressure to eat at home. As parents, our children are our life. And we want to nurture them! And we can do this with food. Remember how much mind space was taken up with milk feeding.  Am I getting it right?  Are they drinking enough?  Are they drinking too much? And the list goes on. This is the same with food. We want to give them the best in terms of nourishment and so the dinner table can become a very stressful place to be if our children (in our eyes), are not getting nourished. This may also coincide with our own expectations of portion sizes. Children don’t need as much food as we probably think and sometimes presenting too much food on a plate can be overwhelming. It is better to start with a small amount and then offer more.
  • The language which is used at mealtimes can affect what children eat. Trying to cajole a child to eat what you think they should be eating can be very frustrating for a child. Imagine if you were trying to fall asleep but you had a voice in your ear telling you “ooh, sleep is good, we all need to sleep, sleeping is so important to help you grow…” Well, it’s the same with food. If we start telling children the benefits of food for example “It’ll make you grow strong, just one more mouthful and you will be like Popeye, here’s a choo choo train into the tunnel…, it becomes too overwhelming and frankly annoying. 
  • Children are good at grazing on snacks during the day and although snacks are important, too many can have an obvious impact on hunger pangs and satiety levels. We need our children to really understand what it feels to be hungry but if they are constantly snacking during the day, this won’t happen. And then at mealtimes, we get upset if they don’t eat their roast dinner which you have spent ages preparing from scratch. So making sure there is decent period of time between snack time and mealtime is really important so our children can start to listen to their hunger and control their own appetite.
  • Parental eating habits! Being a good role model at mealtimes is so important. At the moment, you are probably the most important person in their lives (wait until they get to the teenager years when you will probably be the most embarrassing person in their lives!) So if you want them to eat well, you need to show them how it’s done!
  • Not having a structure around mealtimes. We want to show our children that mealtimes are a place for family time. That they occur around the same times each day and that meals are eaten at the table with no distractions such as TV or screens of any sort. This gives a child a sense of understanding of what is expected of them and this can be a comfort. You’ll be surprised how many people come to us saying that their children eat really well at nursery or school but not a home. This is likely because there are set times for meals and snacks in a learning environment and children know what is expected of them during the day. So make sure it is the same at home!
  • Genetics plays a role! So, if you were fussy (or may still be fussy) when it comes to food choices, there is a possibility that your child may also follow suit.

So, what are the things we can do for our babies to encourage them to avoid this stage? Here are the top tips to avoid a fussy eater.

  • If your child is refusing to eat but is getting lots of attention and interaction whether it be cajoling, shouting or parents who are showing how stressed they are about the need for their child to eat, this can lead to more refusal. 
  • Positive re-enforcement is the key. And this should be with any interaction with a food that you would like them to eat. And this needs to happen alongside presenting the new food over and over again. Many people make the mistake of taking the first rejection of a new food as the final decision from their child. It usually isn’t.
  • The other important thing to understand is that we need to make sure we are aware of the interaction happening at mealtimes. If we for example are refusing the eat certain foods and being vocal about it, how on earth can we encourage our child to try that food. By eating meals at separate times to our child and not at the table together, how can we create a supportive and positive mealtime environment? How we can we teach them about eating well if they can’t actually see us eating the foods and encouraging them to imitate us?
  • If we are giving our child a tablet or the TV to watch during mealtimes, how are they understanding about the food in front of them? They are not aware of the food; they are not engaging with anything other than the screen.
  • If we give our child an ice-cream as a reward for eating the “disgusting broccoli”, what does that child learn about the broccoli? Will they ever learn to like the taste if they have to shove it down to get their prize? 
  • If we yell at them, we can actually turn off their appetite and we will begin teaching them that eating is unpleasant.
  • If we give them the attention at meal times when they are rejecting food or throwing food on the floor, this gives them what they want. So, it is important to try and ignore that behaviour, keep calm and tell them “that’s all we are having today”
  • The division of responsibility is key when dealing with a fussy eater and can be applied to every age when we are looking at eating as a whole. You decide what, when and where your child eats, and they decide how much or whether they eat anything at all. 

And so, if you are in this place right now with your picky eater you are not alone! It is a normal part of their development and we need to think of how we make mealtimes a positive experience. We need to create a relaxed environment around the table as a family. We need to use positive words when we eat. We need to show our children the love that eating can bring. We need to not raise our voices if they refuse to eat. We need to ignore tantrums or plate throwing. We need to understand that we are teachers in this respect. We need to teach our children how to eat. We need to be the best role models we can be. We will still be able to nurture our little ones by the language we use, by being loving and relaxed and giving them all the positive feedback possible when eventually that “disgusting” broccoli goes in, stays in and is eaten all up!

The good news is that this is a phase which can be changed for the better. There are many techniques to do this and much support available. If you have serious concerns around your child’s eating habits it is vital that you speak to your GP in the first instance so they can rule out any other problems which may be contributing to you having a fussy eater. 

Happy Tums run Fussy Eaters workshops online via Zoom. All details can be found here www.happytums.co.uk

Disclaimer: The views and advice given in this article are those of the guest writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Weaning World or any other organisations represented on this platform

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