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Fussy Eating: How to survive the mealtime mayhem - By Tia Boddie ANutr

Fussy Eating: How to survive the mealtime mayhem - By Tia Boddie ANutr

Dec 27, 2022Charlotte Thompson

How to survive the mealtime mayhem

I think it is fair to say, all parents have been there at some point in their journey. Whether it’s the “I don’t want that” or the “I’m not eating it” or even the classic “I don’t like it”; it’s the same fear all parents have; having a “fussy” eater.

The mealtime mayhem can seem like an ongoing, never-ending battle. To give a brief overview, the prime mayhem ages are from 6 months, when solid foods are likely to be introduced, up to 5 years old, with a peak around 2 years old. Those terrible twos! This age range is where development is rapid and food refusal is rampant.

Now, you may be reading this and thinking “surviving” is a strong word to use. However, mealtimes can be chaos with a “fussy” eater at home. Yet, to survive a fussy eater, you first must understand what the fuss is all about.

Understanding all the fuss: what the science says

Up to 50% of children experience fussy eating at some point but what this looks like varies from child to child. Fussiness is subjective. Even though battle stories might be swapped from parent to parent, what one describes as fussy might not be fussy to another.

So, to understand your fussy eater, it is best to explore it with them directly. Food refusal is a built-in evolutionary safety mechanism and a part of child development. It is normal for toddlers and children to refuse to eat or taste new foods. If you are uncertain if your child is a “fussy” or “picky” eater, there are 5 key signs for parents to look out for:

Not liking certain foods – there may be one, two or a few foods that your child has tried but will not eat

Limited variety of diet – they may ask for the same meal or only rotate between a few meals which they will eat and like

Being choosy – being particular with texture and appearance. “she likes eggs but only scrambled”, “he’ll eat chicken but not turkey or red meat”

Resistant to trying new foods – they will not attempt to try anything new or unfamiliar. Food neophobia is the fear or avoidance of new foods. It is a common part of child development and is experienced by up to 60% of children between 2-5 years old.

Picking at foods or eating slowly – if you have seen veggies being tossed around on the plate it may be to avoid eating them.

Consider it like this, you are a toddler who has just started to explore this new environment you’ve been brought into. New sights, new smells, new textures. Your caregivers sit you in a highchair, which means food is on the way. Your parents put food down and you see something unfamiliar looking at you. It’s green and squishy and you’re not sure it’s safe but you don’t know how to tell your caregivers this new experience is scary. So, you scream and refuse to eat it.

There are a lot of new things happening for your “fussy” eater. Repeated exposure to new foods or re-introducing new foods, is the most effective method, particularly for veggie consumption. It involves introducing the same food, on different occasions and in different ways. Variety is key! and repeated exposure allows a child to experience foods in different ways. Not just happy tummies but happy senses: new tastes, textures and appearances to explore.

Think about carrots, for example, and all the ways they can be cooked or added to foods!. Raw, boiled, roasted; lots of possibilities! On average, it takes 8-10 times for a portion of new food to be tasted before it is accepted. That’s a whole lot of trial and error! Even though repeated exposure to foods can take time, it does not have to be a tiresome process.

Survivor’s guide for “fussy eating”

Now, understanding fussy eating is half the battle. The rest is knowing how to conquer the dreaded mealtime mayhem. It can be intense. It’s parent vs child. The back-and-forth reasoning. The bargaining to eat the veggies. The fed-up and the frustrated. It is understandably exhausting every day to face the same challenge, but it is important to know, you are not alone.

Every parent wants to see their child grow and develop healthily. Studies have shown that parental concerns around fussy eating are common; 69% of parents seek practical support with managing fussy eating behaviours. After reading this, you’ll hopefully have some tools to tackle the mayhem. Here are some top survival tips:

Be the leader

Show them how it's done! Research shows that modelling behaviours can encourage children to try new foods and help them develop healthy eating habits long-term. Eating the food, yourself can show it is safe and tasty to eat. Everyone has their preferences but using positive language can give a big boost of confidence to a fussy eater. “That’s yummy”, “Ooo, that looks nice”, and “This smells lovely”; positive comments and facial expressions from caregivers can make foods seem more appealing. Even if they try a small portion of something new, praise them for doing so.

Encourage independence

You decide what, when and where – they decide how much. Giving options can be helpful and allows your child to make some decisions for themselves. There is no need to offer a full menu – two options will suffice! “carrots or peas”, “potatoes or pasta” for example. As the caregiver, you do have some responsibilities but trust that your child knows when they are full.

Meal-time fun-zone

No more mayhem, no more chaos, no more tears. Try and make mealtimes fun! Fussy eating behaviours can be stressful for caregivers and children. Making mealtimes a calm and enjoyable occasion can help reduce the anxiety around the food itself. Try making funny faces with food on the plate, taking the conversation away from the food itself or serving new foods in different ways. Food is a sensory experience, so make it a fun adventure to explore. Who’s to say playing with your food is a bad thing! It is actually part of the acceptance process. Research suggests playing with food allows children to understand food better.

Release the pressure

Patience is key. The mealtime mayhem can be incredibly frustrating. Research suggests that pressuring your child to eat new foods can be counterproductive and increase the ferocity of the refusal. That pressure can impact you as much as it can impact your little one. All sorts of tools are used when the mayhem ensues but no amount of begging, bribing, or threatening will work in the long term.

You may want to keep the peace, especially when “I’m not eating it” is being shouted at the table but tactics such as using food rewards are not always helpful. Research suggests strict parenting styles, pressuring children to eat and food rewards may increase pickiness. Is “If you eat your broccoli, you can have some chocolate afterwards” – sound familiar? Sweet foods will seem nice and veggies seem nasty. Try accepting the food refusal and trying again, with the same food item, on a different night. You may notice the peace will come, and the harsh refusal will ease into a willingness to try and eventually acceptance. Deep breath in, deep breath out, you’ll get there.

The calm after the mealtime mayhem storm

Amid the mayhem, you may be thinking, will my child always be fussy? And the simple answer is no. The silver lining to this storm is that your child is developing a sense of taste and food preference throughout this process. In the short term, there may be some ups and downs, some back and forths but a key thing is for positive experiences to be created around mealtimes.

It may be overwhelming but in every storm, there will be shelter. If you are finding mealtime mayhem difficult to manage, make someone aware of the challenges you’re experiencing. Whether it be your local GP, parental/caregiver support group or charities such as Young Minds; there is support available to you.

So the next time you’re at the dinner table, and the mayhem kicks off: hearing the “I don’t want to eat my veggies”, “I only want this”, and “I don’t want that” in increasing volumes; before you start pulling your hair out and blowing steam from your ears, know those fussy eating behaviours are not the enemy.

You will survive the mayhem and you are not alone!

BY TIA BODDIE ANUTR

Author Bio:

Tia Boddie (ANutr) is a Healthy Lifestyles Nutritionist, who teaches sessions on food, exercise and mental health.
Tia studied BSc Nutrition (Exercise and Health) at Kingston University and currently studies MSc Psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University. 
Tia is also a qualified PT and Sports Massage Therapist.
Message from Tia:
I love all things health and well-being! I truly believe understanding behaviours is key to making healthier life choices. My blog on fussy eating is a fun extension of that belief. It’s about understanding the what and the why, with some key tips on how to ‘survive’ fussy eating behaviours”

 

References

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2) Dovey, T. M., Staples, P. A., Gibson, E. L. & Halford, J. C. 2008. Food neophobia and 'picky/fussy' eating in children: a review. Appetite, 50, 181-93.

3) Brown, C. L., Vander Schaaf, E. B., Cohen, G. M., Irby, M. B. & Skelton, J. A. 2016. Association of Picky Eating and Food Neophobia with Weight: A Systematic Review. Childhood Obesity, 12, 247-262.

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7) Fraser, K., Markides, B.R., Barrett, N. and Laws, R., 2021. Fussy eating in toddlers: A content analysis of parents' online support seeking. Maternal & Child Nutrition17(3), p.e13171

8) Feeding young children aged 1 to 5 years: draft SACN report (2022). SACN. Draft report for ages 1-5. SACN guidance

9) Mitchell, G. L., Farrow, C., Haycraft, E. & Meyer, C. 2013. Parental influences on children's eating behaviour and characteristics of successful parent-focussed interventions. Appetite, 60, 85-94.

10) Mura Paroche, M., Caton, S. J., Vereijken, C., Weenen, H. & Houston-Price, C. 2017. How Infants and Young Children Learn About Food: A Systematic Review. Front Psychol, 8, 1046.

11) Jansen, P. W., De Barse, L. M., Jaddoe, V. W., Verhulst, F. C., Franco, O. H. & Tiemeier, H. 2017. Bi-directional associations between child fussy eating and parents' pressure to eat: Who influences whom? Physiology & behaviour, 176, 101-106

 

 

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