What is fussy eating?
Fussy eating is actually a normal part of toddler development. It is an “umbrella term” used to describe a broad range of eating characteristics. This could include food selectivity (avoiding certain foods or food groups), sensory issues, a genuine disgust in food or fear of eating. Medical issues (such as iron deficiency) can also influence appetite and intake.
Fussy eating can result when babies and young children are not given the opportunity to regularly get messy with food – touching tasting and smelling a variety of foods and textures. Often, when parents get stressed about our child’s food intake, it can make the situation worse.
The mum guilt…
It can be incredibly stressful as a parent to have a fussy eater and have battles every mealtime. Mums can feel overwhelmed, confused and frustrated - it often crushes our confidence. Many mums I work with also feel huge “Mum guilt” and worry about their child not eating well enough. They worry that their child won’t be getting everything they need to thrive.
The good news is that often fussy eaters still grow to their full potential because they often eat good amounts of carbs and dairy ie. “the white foods”. The main issue here is that they sometimes lack some of the nutrients they need such as iron, zinc and other vitamins.
Do they grow out of it?
Fussy eating is something that can certainly be improved over time, but it most definitely is a journey or “work in progress” rather than a quick fix.
Competent eaters can take years to develop and this is completely OK. Children don’t need to be eating a complete range of all the fruit and vegetables by age 8, but they do need to at least be eating some different colours (important from a nutritional perspective). We need to look at the big picture and remember that over their first 18 years, children learn a lot about all different aspects of life and food is no different – it takes time.
Do parents’ own eating behaviours play a role in a child’s eating behaviours?
Absolutely! It’s crucial that good role modelling occurs. We, as parents, need to eat with our children as much as possible and, by doing so, we can teach them how to enjoy healthy wholesome food. When children see the rest of the family happily enjoying healthy food, they are much more likely to trust the food and want to eat it too!
Top tips for parents with fussy eaters:
Stop talking about food and remove all food pressure. I encourage parents to include a variety of foods on their plate – some that you know they will accept (safe foods) and others that you want them to try (put a smaller amount on the plate).
Offer them healthy foods throughout the day. Young children have small tummies; therefore, snacks can provide up to 50% of their nutrition. Dinner is only one fifth or sixth of their day, so if they don’t eat all their vegies at dinner, it’s no big deal if they have eaten them in other meals and snacks.
Serve meals earlier rather than later. Tired, distracted or anxious children eat poorly.
Keep snack times consistent (and given them a good 2 hours in between) rather than a smorgasbord of food on offer all day.
Eat together at the table and remove as many distractions from eating as possible.
Limit their milk intake to 1 cup per day.
Top tips to getting kids to eat vegetables:
Eat them yourself! Showing them that you enjoy veggies on a regularly basis will make all the difference (we are their teachers in life!)
Incorporate them into snacks – i.e. grate zucchini or carrot into muffins or have chopped veg as snacks to dip into pesto or hummus dip. Use fruit to blend with yoghurt or milk into smoothies or tip the mixture into plastic moulds to make frozen ice blocks. (check out my healthy snack recipes at www.trickylittletummies.com.au/recipes)
Make it fun! Make the food appealing to children and remember their whole world revolves around having fun.
Get them involved in food preparation – picking herbs, rinsing lettuce, cracking eggs, mixing food in a bowl, chopping veggies (safely).
Try not to make too much of a fuss if they don’t eat them and keep mealtimes positive.
Note: Hiding pureed veg in food is fine, but also make sure you give them pieces of vegetables to eat on a daily basis.
Words: Karina Savage
Karina is a leading Paediatric Dietitian and Mum of 2 from Tricky Little Tummies. She loves helping families to nourish little bodies, specialising in babies and kids with food intolerance/allergy and fussy eaters. Working with thousands of families over the past 20 years, Karina loves lifting the cloud of confusion and stress, providing reassurance, clarity and inspiration around feeding their children.
Originally published in Connected Caregiving Spring 2022