A registered Nutritionist explains how to deal with fussy eaters.
Kids can love a food one minute and hate it the next. Mealtimes become battlegrounds when foods are rejected outright, and parents and carers are often concerned about nutritional deficiencies. Fortunately, many children soon grow out of the fussy eating phase, and there are several steps that can help along the way.
Risk of nutritional deficiencies
Research shows that health risks associated with fussy eating are generally low. However, fussy eaters do tend to have lower intakes of certain nutrients that may lead to digestive problems and a weaker immune response:
- Vitamin E - Top sources include sunflower seeds, wheatgerm, dark green leafy vegetables, eggs, sweet potato, and avocado.
- Vitamin C - Citrus fruit, strawberries, broccoli, peas, watercress, kiwi, peppers, and tomatoes are all good sources.
- Folate - Found in green leafy vegetables, beans, and lentils.
- Fibre - Wholegrains like brown rice, brown pasta, and wholemeal bread are good sources, alongside vegetables and whole fruits.
How to deal with fussy eaters
The first step to managing your child’s dislikes is to look at any underlying reason for the change in taste.
Babies are weaned onto soft smooth foods, and the range of different textures offered to toddlers can sometimes trigger aversions to certain foods. When a food is refused, try presenting it again a few days later in a different way. For example:
- Chunks of meat may be too chewy, but mince is softer, especially when cooked in a sauce.
- Roast chicken can taste dry, but chicken chunks coated in breadcrumbs as homemade ‘nuggets’ become playful finger food to be dipped in ketchup or mayonnaise.
- Porridge may taste lumpy or thick, but a homemade flapjack with jumbo oats and dried fruit has a different texture altogether.
It can be hard to remain positive when your child is refusing foods at every meal. However, studies have shown associations between an increased pressure to eat and fussy eating patterns. Using food as a behavioural reward can also contribute to picky eating and lead to confused messaging about the role of food in maintaining health.
Try these tips for calmer mealtimes:
- Remove any distractions like TV, iPads, tablets, and phones. Background music is fine but avoid visual distractions.
- Sit down to eat.
- Eat at the same time as your child.
- Don’t force your child to clear their plate: tuning into the sensation of feeling full helps them recognize when to stop eating.
- Avoid classing foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
- Avoid using foods as behavioural rewards.
- Involve your child in food shopping and food preparation as much as possible so they get used to the smell and feel of different foods.
- Try raw versions of fruit and vegetables if they dislike cooked – and vice versa.
- Be mindful of snacking in-between meals; a child is less likely to try new foods if they aren’t very hungry.
Navigating a fussy eating phase can be difficult for parents and carers. Making changes to the mealtime environment and trying out new foods in different ways can help ease the stress.
Wolstenholme, H., Kelly, C., Hennessy, M., Heary, C. (2020) Childhood fussy/picky eating behaviours: a systematic review and synthesis of qualitative studies. International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity 17, 2. doi.org/10.1186/s12966-019-0899-x