To follow on from last week’s post about my ride with fussy eating with the boys, I promised I’d pull together my tips on working through these stages and coming out the other side with (hopefully) happy eaters.
But before I do that, I thought it might be helpful to give some further context around fussy eating, with an aim of reassuring you that it’s normal for most young children to go through this – not that that point may make you feel any better, if your child is subsisting on cheese on toast! But I hope that in combination with my personal insights and those from research in this area, it will give you some confidence and a number of practical strategies you can use to work through this time.
The roots of fussy eating
Fussy eating, whether it involves rejecting foods that have previously been enjoyed or being reluctant to try new foods, essentially comes about due to a mismatch between the tastes we are genetically programmed to prefer, during a time when food was scarce (giving us a survival advantage), to today, when food in general, is readily available.
Young children come hard-wired to prefer sweet, salty and umani flavours, and reject bitter and sour flavours. It’s thought this has an evolutionary basis because in nature, sweet, salty or umami flavour foods are generally energy- and nutrient-rich, whereas bitter or sour flavour foods can signal toxins and potentially lead to sickness. These preferences are hard-wired into our genes – especially the liking for sweetness, which is universal for all babies throughout the world and interestingly, increases during growth spurts.
But, as I talk about in my book, an ability to adapt and enjoy a wide variety of foods, has also been crucial for the survival of our species. As such, all young children possess an ability to learn to like foods, even if they are not naturally enjoyable to them on the first try.
The challenge with this and why fussy eating is so common, is that it’s much easier to passively establish unhealthy taste preferences because promoting a liking of a variety of healthy foods, such as vegetables, that lack the basic tastes of sweet, salty or umami, requires more effort.
Why bother now?
The are two main reasons to tackle this now, as opposed to letting nature run its course, and hoping that these young children (who have not yet come to understand just how wonderful vegetables or other wholesome foods you’re struggling with) will grow out of this fussiness: 1. These early years are pivotal in establishing healthy taste preferences. Most children by the age of 4 will have a pretty firmed-up set of food likes and dislikes, and these travel with them into adolescence and adulthood. 2. And of course, healthy foods are vital to provide them with all the nourishment they need to keep pace with their phenomenal growth and development.
No pressure then! I don’t want to panic you or for you to switch off because climbing Mount Everest is looking like a more appealing option at this point. Have a read through my tips and hopefully they will give you a picture of all the things you can be doing to raise healthy, happy eaters.
My top 12 ways to deal with fussy eating
1:- Offer the food regularly
When it comes to food – familiarity breeds liking and so if I could only give one piece of advice, it would be that repeatedly offering a food is essential to drive a liking for it.
I have seen it quoted that it can take upwards of 100 tries to develop a liking for some foods, but I haven’t seen research to support that number. There are several studies that show to it is probably a much smaller (although still significant) number, around 10 times. The true figure will vary from person to person and food to food, but the important thing to take away, is that learning to like certain foods may take real perseverance.
2:- Try the food in different formats
It’s natural to enjoy foods in different formats anyway, so this may point happen by-the-by in your kitchen but I just want to reaffirm that if you had no luck initially with carrot sticks (not raw for babies), try another way, such as grating it into a sandwich.
I could give you plenty of anecdotes of lightbulb moments I’ve had with my boys, where we had been struggling with certain foods and then I tried it in a different way and bam, there you go… ‘Oh, I didn’t know I liked zucchini!’ Laurence would announce, after trying zoodles. It may have been the kale chips instead of wilted kale, or spinach leaves in a fajita wrap, rather than in a salad.
Very importantly though, trying different formats is absolutely not about hiding or sneaking food in (see next point).
3:- Show the food
Babies and children need to see what it is they are eating in order to learn to like it, because taste preferences are shaped by a mixture of taste, texture and a visual association – a key reason why I prefer weaning with finger foods rather than purees.
They will not learn that they are enjoying spinach if they can’t see or taste it because it’s been disguised with strawberries and bananas in a smoothie. Sure, they will get the nutritional benefit of including it and so it isn’t a completely wasted effort. But the aim really is to drive a liking of the food in the first instance, so that you don’t have to sneak things in, especially when they wouldn’t ordinarily be there.
4:- Share meals with them
In addition a repeatedly offering foods ad infinitum, young children are also strongly reliant on role-models to shape their behaviour. Making time to share meals with little ones and showing them that you are safely eating the food and enjoying it, reinforces to them, at a very deep and subconscious level that the food is OK.
5:- Consider peer pressure
After I posted my last article on fussy eating I had a few people comment that their toddler eats really well at daycare but not at home, yet the food offered is similar. This is probably another example of positive role modelling, but in this case it’s coming from their peers rather than from you.
Laurence is now a pretty good eater and I’ve been told several times that he has had a positive influence on other children, whether at kinder or at playdates at our home. But it can also work the other way… I have also watched Laurence study the behaviour of other children at mealtimes and then copy this at a later date.
If this point applies to your child, be mindful about how you can use this to your advantage. For example, if they always eat well at childcare, then routinely include the food in their lunchbox. If they eat better when peers are around, can you include lunch at the start or end of playdates, and so on.
6:- Pair foods with familiar, well-liked foods
This tip called flavour-flavour learning by researchers in this area and the way it works is by pairing new or previously rejected foods with familiar, preferred foods to drive a liking through association. After a few tries, it should be possible that the familiar foods can be removed and the association remains. Good examples of this in practice is using dips and sauces, which children often like for their sweetness.
7:- Be mindful of amounts
Particularly when it comes to new foods, but also with those foods they usually snub, ensure that these are not the main focus of the meal. Take the pressure off by giving a small amount of new or ‘culprit’ foods and offer them alongside their favourites. They only need to have a small taste each time to eventually drive a liking for it (note that just seeing the food will not be enough), so don’t heap the broccoli on their plate it they are not a fan yet – a little broccoli shrub will be fine.
8:- Think about the mealtime environment
If your child is overtired or a mealtime has to be rushed for some reason, it’s probably best leaving new or ‘culprit’ foods for another time. Mealtimes can become stressful enough for everyone around the table if foods are being poked at or spat on the floor, or older children refuse to even sit down because you haven’t made what they wanted (we’ve all been there).
At other times, consider cultivating a calm environment so attention can be brought to the food. We have a rule like most parents, that there are toys at the table and I will often turn the radio off if I think it might be distracting.
9:- Involve them in the preparation
When they are able to, involve them in as much of the meal preparation as possible. We have not had much luck with those children’s knives you can get, all that seems to happen is Laurence massacres a carrot that I’ve given him to chop. But grating, spiralizing, mixing etc. are all pretty safe activities when done under supervision and they are also a fun learning experience for children.
10:- Avoid pressure to clear their plate
Try to not get into a habit of coercing them to clear their plate before allowing them to have their afters or leave the table. This does 2 things: firstly it overrides their natural appetite control, which is very good in young children, and secondly, the added pressure to eat, makes the new or rejected food even less appealing – somehow devaluing it.
11: – Keep to a predictable schedule
Routine and structure really helps to manage the expectations of young children. Generally 2 to 3 hours between meals, and allowing 20-30 minutes per meal should be OK. Introducing new foods at a time when young children are likely to be hungry is also a good idea. So for example, if they are particularly good at eating their breakfast, what can you introduce at this time, if the dinnertime is much more of a challenge (attention levels, tiredness and so on)?
12: – Be positive and praise even small gains
Positive reinforcement can really help to cement the message that they’ve done a good job, even if they have eaten less an a caterpillar would. Encourage them to eat but do not force them – if foods are refused, experiment with different food combinations, tastes, textures and ways of encouragement.
I hope some of those ideas are helpful. Let me know in the comments if you have any questions!
In good health,