Understanding ‘Fussy’ Eating

When it comes to meal times, children can be notoriously picky. Be it gloopy, fizzy or slippery, we look at some ways to encourage your kids to eat the foods they won't.

Fussy eaters can be frustrating but take a moment to think about your own eating habits.

Did you eat everything as a child? Are there foods now that you don't eat because you associate them with certain events in your life (for example I can only eat chicken soup when I'm sick, otherwise I can't stand the taste!). Or are you adverse to certain textures such as slimy or rubbery?

Apparently, rather than developing our taste buds over time, they start to disappear - be it from smoke damage or drinking hot liquids. It's also important to note that not everyone has the same number of taste buds - a full grown adult has between 2,000 and 10,000. This starts to shed light on why some people like Roquefort and others choose to steer clear.

If you've got fussy eaters at home there are a few things to remember that will help you introduce new foods, understand their crinkled faces, and make it through the other side.

They Won't Starve Themselves

Unless there are other factors (mental or physical) at play, a healthy child will not starve themselves. When they are hungry, they will eat. Don't feel like a bad parent if they haven't eaten something for lunch - just don't fill the gaps with snacks!

Once they demonstrate that they can eat their meals, you can introduce the bits in between. This may mean you move dinner to 5pm when they get home from a club, rather than giving them a snack and then trying to feed them at 6.

Think about your own situation. There are some nights when you just don't want to eat, likely you've got a bit of a bug or you over indulged at lunch - you don't starve overnight, you're just a little hungrier in the morning.

Having meals at set times helps children get into a routine and they start to expect a feeding. Falling into the pattern of providing meals to different children at different times just lengthens your evening and reinforces fussiness.

Don't Make Exceptions

Once your children are old enough to join you at the table, don't treat them any differently than the adults. Prepare one meal (think about what you're making) but the less you treat them as special, the more they will realise it's one choice for everyone.

If dinner is salmon and kale with roast potatoes, that's what everyone is having; likely there will be something on the plate that they will be interested in eating. Don't fall into the trap of making them something else after dinner is on the table!

New Mixed with Old

Introduce new tastes slowly and go back to them! Just because they don't like something this week doesn't mean they won't like them in a month.

Once you've discovered a few favourites, you'll have something to start with. If they like pasta, make a pasta they like and try putting new things on the side. Once you know they like them, add them into the sauce.

Try adding strange ingredients to dishes they like such as (beetroot) brownies, chocolate (courgette) cake, or carrot and apple juice. Add the new ingredient in small quantities to begin with and increase over time.

Think About the Language

When your child tells you they don't like something, try to find out what it is they don't like, is it the taste, the texture, the smell? There are a whole host of things that influence how we feel about food. If a certain texture makes your child gag, it's not just them being fussy.

Try foods in different combinations and different formats. Say, for example, your child doesn't like chickpeas, try giving them hummus, but don't mention the two are related until after they decide if they like it. It's the same food, just in a different format.

If they don't like cooked mushrooms, try adding them to a salad raw... the texture just went from slimy to fleshy.

Food Association

This can be a hard one to understand but there are things that all of us avoid because they remind us of 'that night'. It might be a food that your child used to love, like pizza, and suddenly they refuse to eat it.

What happened the last time they had pizza... was it at a birthday party where they ate so much they made themselves sick? They don't associate being sick with eating too much, they associate it with the pizza.

As the adult, make sure you don't add to that by making comments like:

"That's what happens when you eat too much pizza"

All they will have heard was sick and pizza.

If you always feed them chicken soup when they are ill, that food might become associated with that feeling and they either want to eat it because it's a comfort food, or they won't eat it because it makes them think about being ill.

Try not to make it sound like a chore to eat dinner and a treat to eat dessert. So, it's not: "If you don't eat your dinner, you won't get to have dessert". But rather: "You're not hungry anymore. That's fine, we'll save dessert for another day".

Threatening to send their food to children in Africa is another non-starter - are you really going to do it?

Just remember that psychology plays a part in what we do and don't like.

Get Involved

You've heard it all before, but if children help make dinner, they are more likely to eat it. They have a vested interest in what they've made, and they feel a sense of pride when they see other people eating it.

From going shopping and finding a healthy-looking lettuce, to helping you mix the dough and watching it rise - their involvement can be small or large. Not only are you introducing them to new tastes, but you’re also setting them up for the future.