Kids have evolving tastebuds from a very young age. Infants have around 30,000 tastebuds spread throughout their mouths. By the time we hit adulthood, only about a third of these remain. So eating is an intense experience for children. Children are tasting food with higher intensity and flavour than adults. As part of evolution, they are also hard wired to find calories to support their growth and weight. One of the sugary flavours they seek out is abundant in breastmilk. Maybe this is why children are also more interested in ‘white foods’ than colourful foods. Bitter foods tend to be rejected, as they might be traditionally seen as a ‘poison’. The reason they often don’t eat their greens, could be that the bitter flavours in them are amplified by so many tastebuds. By the time their palates are ready and more accepting of vegetable flavours, they are negatively associated with bad memories of either being told they have to eat them or being punished for not eating them. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2013/jan/29/changing-tastes-food-and-aging
I see a significant number of parents with stress purely around food. Whether it be that their child ‘never eats what’s on their plate’, or ‘over eats junk food’ or ‘will only eat a selection of 3 different dinners’, I can completely empathise with how this affects the dynamics in the house. It is hard. Parents are left with the pressure to ensure their child grows, whilst their child becomes frustrated by the ongoing pressure to eat, it creates a bit of a storm. It doesn’t need to be like this, however.
One of my all-time favourite sayings to parents going through this is ‘pick your battles’! Some battles are just too big and should be avoided. That’s easier said than done. How do we help children thrive when they won’t eat what we ask them to?
You provide, they decide.
Appropriately named ‘the division of responsibility’, this method states that your job is to choose and prepare the food, provide regular mealtimes and snacks and make eating times pleasant and calm. Your child’s job is to eat the amount he or she needs, choose what they eat from your offerings and learn to behave well at mealtime. It is also helpful to offer children their preferred foods regularly rather than trying to make them eat new foods too often. Give them a daily mixture of foods they know and love and small amounts of ‘test foods’ which they are still learning to accept. Be patient! I know this process might seem like it is taking forever, but in my experience the tide shifts at around age 6-8 where children become more relaxed with food (and perhaps parents do too) and are willing to be more adventurous.
Families tend to be getting busier and more diverse in their activities. Some parents do shift work and some kids are home until late after school. This tends to lead to segregated mealtimes where not everyone is available to eat together. Eating together provides a pause to the day, a chance to reflect, and creates positive feelings around food. Buffet style mealtimes work well where the food is laid out and each person can choose what they are going to put on their plate. Family mealtimes may not be possible every night, but at least creating a ritual like this every so often enables these positive interactions to occur.
When eating together, turn of screens. There should be no phones or television. Traditional face to face becomes so important in our busy world and helps your child to feel valued.
Fill in the gaps
Some fussy eaters may need extra nutrition. https://dietitianconnection.com/app/uploads/2021/06/Fussy-Eaters-Factsheet_A4-v6-1.pdf
If in doubt request an appointment with your GP or paediatrician to arrange a more intensive review such as measuring their BMI, Muac-z score and blood testing for specific nutritional deficiencies. Parents and I are often surprised that their child is still growing adequately despite the perceived lack of nutrients. Despite this, I do tend to refer to a dietician to look at what else can be done and add on specific replacement of vitamins that might be lacking.
Some children are seen as ‘fussy’, but actually have a secondary underlying condition such as sensory difficulties (overloaded by their senses), anxiety disorder or a gastro-intestinal disorder such as coeliac disease which leads to tummy aches after meals containing wheat. When in doubt, seek out an expert opinion.