Many parents consider one or more of their kids to be a so-called “fussy eater”. It’s a term we hear EVERYWHERE, used by parents to describe at least one of their child’s preference for feeding. A research study found that much as 46% of children were fussy eaters at some point during early childhood and that this behavior is transient and part of healthy development.
Try persuading your fussy eater to eat a green leafy vegetable or broccoli! That is one of the most infuriating and most common tasks a parent would have encountered before. Parents are often stressed as good weight, and overall growth of their child is dependent on their child’s eating and feeding habits. Providing a nutritionally balanced diet is thought to be highly important for their child’s development.
What contributes to fussy eating?
There are two main contributing factors to challenges when feeding your child. Fussy eating or food neophobia.
Psychologists suggest that food neophobia is relatively normal where most children go through a phase where they may reject new foods. This typically occurs around the age of two and can continue for a few months or years.
Fussy eaters, on the other hand, have slightly different characteristics from children with just food neophobia. Fussy eaters tend to:
- Eat between 20 to 40 different types of food.
- Avoid certain food in particular food groups (e.g., avoids all meat)
- Are willing to try new foods after several exposures
- Get tired and reject specific foods, but after taking a break from that specific food will be able to accept subsequently.
How severe is your child’s fussy eating?
On one end of the spectrum, there are the children who are mildly fussy. They are the children who will pick on specific food groups,
for example, green leafy vegetables, but overall are happy to eat food from other food groups and has a large variety of foods in their repertoire.
At the age of two years old, some children may present as having these 'mild fussy eaters' behaviours, but it may be part of normal development. These children continue to have a fairly balanced diet, as parents can supplement their lack of eating certain foods, with other varieties within the food group, though it can be annoying or frustrating at times.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are children who are extremely fussy. They might gag and vomit when food of certain textures are placed in their mouth or have huge tantrums during the meal. They accept less than 20 different types of food. These children usually take maybe 1-2 types of food per food group, and may even omit specific food groups. Mealtimes are very stressful for both parents and their child. Children with extreme fussy eating may rely on milk for their primary source of nutrition. Children with severe fussy eating would need to see a professional, like a speech therapist trained in feeding to determine the cause of their feeding difficulty and work with parents and the child on their feeding and mealtimes.
10 General feeding guidelines to support your mild to moderate fussy eater
Adhering to some of the suggestions below can be challenging at times. But do persevere. You may want to consider setting one or two targets to work on first, rather than attempting to implement all at once during the meal.
1. Have regular meals spaced 3 hours apart
Hunger will help to build an appetite and increases the likelihood of your child eating. Though this may not be the solution to all your problems, without some hunger and appetite, getting your fussy eater to eat will be even more challenging.
2. Keep mealtimes to 30 min
It is strongly advised to keep meal times to only 30 min. Children have very short attention spans and are unable to sit at the table for long. Any longer mealtimes will make eating and feeding an unpleasant experience and will further add to their dislike for eating. Having a lengthened meal also means time away for your child to play or sleep. These are almost as important as eating.
3. Avoid supplementing with milk
When the meal is over, avoid supplementing with milk after the feed for the child who did not take enough during their main meals. Some children will learn over time that they will eventually be full and satiated, as they will get their milk finally. This does not encourage them to take sufficiently during their 30 min of meal time.
4. Water only between meals, avoid juices and milk
Milk and juices will fill your child up. It will not help in increasing your child’s appetite for their main meal.
5. Meal plans
Plan for at least one to two familiar foods that your child accepts for the meal. This will reduce the worry of your child having an empty stomach by the end of the meal. Continue to expose them to new foods, and other foods served on the table. It helps them to learn new family foods gradually and eases them into accepting the family meal. Many parents make the mistake of ensuring the whole meal consists of only foods that the child accepts. Your child then misses out on opportunities to learn new foods that the rest of the family eats, and their food repertoire then continues to be limited in this vicious cycle.
6. Allow for self-feeding
Children learn best when they are in control and able to lead. Allow them to use their hands and utensils to explore. Give them a set of utensils with a portion of the food you are giving, for the chance to self-feed.
7. Encourage participation
For the older child, they can help you prepare and cook the food, or help out during grocery shopping. During mealtimes, fussy eaters can be roped in to ‘serve’ food to everyone including themselves during the meal. This will give them an opportunity to interact with the food or decide the amount they would like to have on their plate. It helps to increase their acceptance of the food slowly.
8. Serve small portions of new foods together with foods they accept.
Encourage them to explore their food, by touching with their utensils, smelling, touching or taking small tastes. Avoid bringing or forcing your child to try the new menu.
9. Praise your child when they take or tastes new food
You may want to praise them for trying or tasting the new food, to reinforce the behavior that trying is important. After your fussy eater has tasted the new food and displayed their lack of preference for it, RESPECT their wishes and stop encouraging further tasting of the food. Praise them again for at least trying. You can leave the new food within their reach because you never know, they may decide to take a second taste later!
10. It will be messy!
So, parents, it is probably a phase that children may outgrow, as long as your child continues to grow at a rate appropriate for their age. Try to keep calm and expose, expose, expose!
Desiree is a Speech Therapist who specializes with feeding and swallowing difficulties in premature infants, babies, toddlers, and children. She also specializes in working with children with drooling and chewing difficulties, as well as children with stuttering and other speech-related issues. Her wealth of experience was obtained during her years working at NICUs and feeding clinics in our local hospitals. She is currently working at Magic Beans Feeding and Speech Therapy Clinic.