Dealing with a fussy eater

Nikki Duffy, author of the River Cottage Baby and Toddler Cookbook shares her expert tips on how to deal when there's a tiny food critic liviing in your house.

Issues over Food

The problems parents most often struggle with are so-called ‘picky eating’, when a child won’t accept the foods you’ve selected for them, and the refusal to eat much at all. Both can be immensely frustrating, worrying and distressing. Believe me. I know. I have struggled with both those issues at length. There is no magic answer, but you will save yourself and your children a lot of grief if you accept, early on, that you cannot control what they eat. You can only guide them: by providing the right sort of foods and by setting the right example of desirable eating behaviour.

Ellyn Satter, an American dietitian and family therapist, in her book, Child of Mine, says it is the parents’ job to decide the what, when and where of feeding, while the child’s job is to decide the whether and how much. She points out that children, from birth, know how much to eat in order to grow in the way nature intended, and that they retain that ability throughout life as long as no one interferes with it. We need to offer them varied and appealing meals, but then allow them to listen to their own hunger and appetite. According to Satter, you are not responsible for how much your child eats, nor the way their body develops. "You must do your part in feeding by reliably and lovingly providing him with appropriate food. You must limit his sedentary activities and give him opportunities to be active… Once you have done all of that, you must trust the outcome." It’s a philosophy I’ve found to ring true, and to be very liberating.

Food refusal

It is often, though not exclusively, the case that a child will be very open to trying lots of different foods in the first few months of weaning then, sometime between 12 and 24 months, everything will change. They might refuse to try anything new, they might refuse foods they previously ate happily and they might become very contrary – eating peas or chicken one day, then refusing them for weeks, or only eating toast if it’s cut in triangles rather than squares. This is a perfectly normal developmental stage. It’s called neophobia (‘fear of the new’) and has been documented by various researchers studying children’s eating habits. The theory is that this phase evolved to help protect a curious and newly mobile child from eating harmful or poisonous things. So if it seems that your toddler is treating unfamiliar food with outright suspicion, as if they think you might be trying to poison them, it’s probably because that is exactly what they’re thinking!


Dr Gillian Harris, Consultant Paediatric Clinical Psychologist at the Children’s Hospital, Birmingham, says: ‘At roughly 18 months, children begin to adhere to rigid visual prototypes – which means they don’t eat anything that doesn’t look right. So tomatoes might be fine, but tomato sauce is not. It may even be the case that tomato sauce was fine last week, but today it looks different, so it’s not fine anymore. During this phase it’s best to feed your child things they are comfortable with, but continue to expose them to other foods and eat them yourself (so they learn that they’re not poisonous). Don’t pressure them to try new foods if they don’t want to or you will begin to create anxiety around mealtimes. Anxiety increases adrenaline and adrenaline decreases appetite.’

 
With this in mind, I don’t think it’s helpful to use the term ‘picky eater’, because it has such negative connotations. A child who won’t eat the dinner you’ve carefully prepared for them may seem pedantic, difficult to please, awkward and frankly rather rude, but a great deal of this ‘fussiness’ stems from that fear of the unfamiliar, from neophobia. So rather than ‘picky’, a child who is very reluctant to eat something could be better described as under-confident, unsure, even afraid. And when you look at it like that, you can see that what they need is not pressure, threats and ultimatums, but reassurance, help and encouragement.
It’s also my belief that small children use mealtimes to find out more about their own place in the world and their influence on the people around them. Once a child realises that they can say no to food or that they can get a reaction if they make a fuss, they will naturally explore the situation. Dietitian Judy More makes a very good point about this in her book, Feeding Your Baby: ‘Parents tend to become more anxious when a baby refuses food than when he won’t wear a hat or socks. But to the baby, it’s all just part of the same game.’ And a friend of mine made a similar point: ‘Food is the one thing they have some control over, isn’t it? You can physically make them sit in their car seat, or move away from the television, but you can’t force them to put something in their mouth.’

Not eating enough

It is normal for babies and toddlers to have inconsistent eating patterns. They might go for a few days eating very little, then seem to be starving all the time. Others seem to survive on an extraordinarily small amount of food. They may go through fads, focusing on just one or two foods for a period of time, then rejecting them in favour of something quite different.
Young children eat according to their appetite rather than by routine and habit, as adults may. This can vary a lot, especially after the first year: growth slows down then, so their daily activity has more of a direct effect onward and frankly rather rude, but a great deal of this ‘fussiness’ stems from that fear of the unfamiliar, from neophobia. So rather than ‘picky’, a child who is very reluctant to eat something could be better described as under-confident, unsure, even afraid. And when you look at it like that, you can see that what they need is not pressure, threats and ultimatums, but reassurance, help and encouragement.

The River Cottage Baby and Toddler Cookbook is filled with great recipes and food advice for little people and is available now.

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