Fussy eating is common but can cause a lot of parental anxiety

Fussy eating is common in toddlers. Feeding a child is a highly emotive experience that causes great parental anxiety. I can completely understand this from a parent’s point of view, but also a professional one.

Eating preferences and patterns during the toddler years can be linked with those later in life, but you don’t want to pressurise your child to eat, rather feed responsively and create a relaxed, positive environment and nutrition will follow. There are many strategies that can help with fussy eating but there are ones that can make it worse.

What is fussy eating?

‘‘Picky/fussy’ eaters are usually defined as children who consume an inadequate variety of foods through rejection of foods that are familiar (and unfamiliar) to them.

Most fussy eating resolves over time with the right strategies, although if you are worried it is important to seek advice as in a small number of cases, Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) can develop.

ARFID is defined as an eating or feeding disturbance resulting in persistent failure to meet appropriate nutritional or energy needs (and not caused by another disorder such as anorexia nervosa).

This includes significant weight loss, faltering growth, major nutritional deficiency or dependence on enteral feeding and nutritional supplements.

What causes fussy eating?

It is believed that fussy eating is caused by a complex mix of child characteristics and the child-parent interaction.

The evolutionary theory suggests that the rejection of vegetables in particular is explained by our innate liking for sweet, salty and umami flavours over bitter and sour ones. We are born with a liking for sweet and salty flavours. This is considered a survival mechanism given that bitter flavours are often poisonous in the wild.

Additionally, as toddlers become more mobile, neophobia (fear of new foods) is believed to be a protective mechanism through fear of eating anything ‘unsafe’.

Early feeding difficulties such as choking, vomiting or reflux can lead to fussy eating. Children with autism regularly present with selective eating due to heightened sensory sensitivity. Children with food allergies or dietary restrictions, such as those with coeliac disease can develop selective eating through fear of contamination.

Genetics may also play a role. There may be genetic variation in sensitivity to taste.

There is strong evidence that early foods preferences are influenced by environment too and parenting styles can have an impact.

How to I get my child to eat more vegetables?

Parents are most worried about their children rejecting vegetables in particular.

So here I provide some tips to help little ones learn to love veggies…

Veggies first during weaning

If you are starting weaning, research suggests that starting with veggies is a good way to help your baby learn to like them and be more accepting of them in the future. Start with bitter tasting ones, a different one on each day, and offer lots of variety for the first 1-2 weeks of weaning from around 6 months of age

Repeat exposure, even after refusal.

It can take sooooo many attempts for your little one to accept a new food, so keep on offering and don’t be put off by your baby’s face expressions

Make veggies part of snacks.

Offer with a protein-based dip such as houmous, smooth nut butter or cream cheese. Babies under 1 don’t need snacks, but for toddlers and older children, offering veggies when they are really hungry as a snack or before a meal can help

Role Model.

Show your baby or child how much you like your veggies. Children learn by copying

Allow your baby/toddler to play with veggies.

Older toddlers and children can get involved with food preparation. Having a disliked veggie even at the same table and not on their plate can be a great first step for veggie adverse little ones

Create a positive eating environment

No pressure to eat, positive talk and make mealtimes as fun as possible!