Helping Fussy Eaters become Food Explorers
Paediatric Dietitian Ana-Kristina Skrapac
I meet many parents who feel like mealtimes have become a battleground, and struggle with their child’s fussy eater behaviours. Picky eating in children is common and is often seen to peak in toddler years.
So, what makes a child fussy around food? What should you be mindful of? How can you help children become food explorers?
What causes children to be fussy eaters?
It is common for toddlers to go through a picky eating phase, which can make it difficult to introduce new foods. Picky eaters may refuse to eat foods that are familiar to them, or may be reluctant to try new foods1, 2.
There are certain factors to consider which may increase the likelihood of fussy eating such as early life factors, pressure to eat, personality factors, parental practices or feeding styles and social influences3, 4. Parents need to be mindful of these influences and how they may affect a child’s readiness or reluctance to eat.
Developing food preferences
Food preferences develop early in life –infants are genetically predisposed to like sweet, salty, bitter, sour tastes3. A diverse introduction to new tastes in the first year of life provides the foundation for food diversity in early toddlers’ years. It is really important to repeatedly try offering new food flavours and tastes, as it is proven that the more exposures to a new food flavour the more likely a child will begin to accept it5.
Sensory aspects to food refusal
Taste is one of the five senses – however we often forget that all of our senses are activated when we eat: touch, smell, sound, sight. Some children are what we call hypersensitive, in that they are more sensitive to sensory feedback and may refuse foods based on how they are presented or if they look different (cut in a different shape, colour), feel different (smooth, lumpy, crunchy), or have a new smell or taste.
Parents often tell me, “my child spits out all the lumps” or “my child will only eat the food if I cut it into a stick shape” or “my child will only eat bland coloured foods”. A child with sensory aspects to their food refusal may refuse even familiar preferred foods if they are presented in a different way. Bearing this in mind, introduce new foods in themes of colour, shape, texture or taste.
Getting a child to eat when they are not hungry is near impossible. Children are generally more in tune with their signals for hunger and fullness and are much more able to ‘self-regulate’ – something we as adults can often struggle with when it comes to overeating! Try to avoid your child grazing throughout the day and rather try to keep to regular mealtimes, which helps children recognise their cues for hunger6. Your child is much more likely to eat well at mealtimes if they have an appetite and are hungry.
Timing of new foods is important – it is best to offer new foods when your child is well, alert and hungry.
“My child will only eat chicken nuggets”
Food fads are common in early childhood and fussy eaters tend to cycle through accepting a preferred food and then refusing it. Try not to feed into this cycle by only giving your child their preferred food in fear that they may not eat at all. Rather try to keep meals as diverse as possible and offer new foods alongside familiar foods, varying meals every day.
Building food curiosity
Something important to consider is that children are more likely to try foods that they have some familiarity with. You can involve your child with shopping, preparing foods, cooking and baking – all of these food-centred activities help your child build tolerance around new foods: looking at, touching, smelling and maybe even tasting a new food.
It is important not to force children to eat the food that they may have helped prepare, and rather keep these activities fun, keeping your child engaged in the process. Over time, with repeated exposures and positive parental role modelling, children will begin to become more curious and accept new foods.
Avoid long-drawn out meals
It is easy to fall into a pattern of prolonged mealtimes when children are picky with foods, this is can be due to behaviours developing such as avoidance tactics when it comes to eating. Keep meals to 20-30min as a general rule. This helps to keep a positive format and is less likely to feel arduous to both you and your child. Children will adapt and generally will eat at a more normal pace once the routine is established.
Eating is social
Family meals are hugely important, and provide a key learning environment for your child, not only with eating new foods but also learning social cues around eating and healthful behaviours6. Shared mealtimes set the tone and expectations for a child around eating. You can model the behaviour you wish your child to adopt, model a normal pace of eating and eating new foods.
- Dovey TM et al. Food neophobia and ‘picky/fussy’ eating in children: a review. Appetite. 2008;50(2-3):181-93.
- Lafraire J et al. Food rejections in children: Cognitive and social/environmental factors involved in food neophobia and picky/fussyeating behavior. Appetite. 2016 Jan 1;96:347-57. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2015.09.008.
- Scaglioni S et al. Influence of parental attitudes in the development of children eating behaviour. British Journal of Nutrition (2008),99, Suppl. 1, S22–S25.
- Harris H et al. Maternal feeding practices and fussy eating in toddlerhood: a discordant twin analysis. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2016; 13: 81.
- Carruth BR et al. Prevalence of picky eaters among infants and toddlers and their caregivers’ decisions about offering a new food. J Am Diet Assoc. 2004 Jan; 104 (Suppl 1):s57-64
- 6. Powell F et al. The importance of mealtime structure for reducing child food fussiness. Matern Child Nutr. 2016 Apr 8. doi: 10.1111/mcn.12296