Guest Post by Dr Ryan Harvey.
Unfortunately, fussy eating among children is extremely common. “Children constantly change what they are interested in or willing to eat,” says Dr Ryan Harvey of House Call Doctor. “This picky eating is often aligned with growth spurts and is part of development, exploring their environment and their independence.”
While it may be comforting to know you aren’t the only family suffering through difficult meal times, fussy eating can be exhausting for parents. Luckily, most children who are picky eaters will simply be going through a phase and will still consume enough nutritious foods to grow and develop properly.
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Why is my child a fussy eater?
“There are a multitude of factors which come into play,” says Dr Harvey. “Unfortunately narrowing down the route cause of your child’s fussy eating may be difficult.”
As mentioned above generally fussy eating can be purely a developmental phase. “It is closely aligned with cognitive development among children which is why fussy eating peaks around the age of two years,” says Dr Harvey.
“Given this, the way food looks generally plays a large role in what is accepted and what is not.” Children can begin to associate the way foods look with things they don’t like, for example spaghetti may resemble the worms they saw in the dirt earlier that day.
There is also evidence of a genetic link between fussy eaters. “There is some research which suggests that fussy eating is an inborn trait within families,” says Dr Harvey.
However parents are not to blame. “Biology and early exposure to a variety of foods is only a small piece of the puzzle,” says Dr Harvey. “Picky eating typically comes down to innate psychological differences between children.”
Those with ‘heightened sensory sensitivity’ are more likely to be fussy eaters than other children. These children may be overwhelmed by the look, smell, taste or texture of foods. “High oral sensitivity can lead children to become fearful and unaccepting of foods that are different.”
They generally prefer smooth fatty foods, such as yoghurt, foods which dissolve in the mouth like chocolate and soft biscuits or crisps and dry carbohydrates.
“In addition to sensitivity, children who have an emotional temperament or are overly shy tend to be more wary of different foods. While children who are impulsive may be more open to new foods,” says Dr Harvey.
Tips to overcome fussy eating
Unfortunately there is no quick fix for fussy eating. “While it may be difficult for parents to deal with the best approach to fussy eating is patience,” says Dr Harvey.
Don’t put pressure on them
Pressuring children to eat certain foods they have aversions to can have a number of negative consequences. Instead it is important to consistently expose them to these foods without pressuring them. Over time they will become more familiar with them and foods that are familiar are more likely to be accepted.
Take them shopping with you
Some parents have suggested taking children grocery shopping and allowing them to pick a new fruit, vegetable or snack that they would like to try.
Reward them for trying
Rewarding children for trying new foods is important. It’s best to avoid food based rewards, instead try a sticker chart system.
Use your creativity
Get creative with names of foods, e.g. ‘little trees’ for broccoli, cauliflower ‘clouds’ and carrots are ‘bunny snacks’ etc. You can also try mixing up the way you present the food (e.g. so it resembles a face) to avoid any connotations children may develop between the food and what it looks like.
Children learn a lot through modelling behaviour of their peers and adults. If you’re expecting your child to eat vegetables make sure you’re eating them too.
Try sensory play
Allow them to first look at the food closely, touch it and play with it before deciding whether they are going to attempt to eat it or not. This will help them discover the texture of foods and become more familiar with them.
While fussy eating may be frustrating it is important to remember that it is a part of development, most children will outgrow it and it generally does not pose any medical concerns.
“If your child is healthy and has energy to play, learn and explore they are probably eating enough nutritious foods to sustain them,” says Dr Harvey. “If you are concerned your child is only eating a very small range of foods or won’t eat from entire food groups for an extended amount of time it may be worth visiting your GP for more guidance.”