Does your baby cringe at the sight of some foods? Are you frustrated that he or she is not eating enough fruits and veggies? Do they groan and scream when you try to feed them broccoli?  Do you have trouble convincing them (or even chasing them around the house) to eat their Brussels sprouts? Or did you already give up that fight?

If so, you are not alone. Around half of all preschool-aged children in developed countries are picky eaters. Parents of picky eaters often feel despair and frustration because of their child’s difficult eating habits. Don’t be alarmed though! With the right dose of patience and persistence, your troubles will soon disappear.

What is picky eating?

Picky eating is the constant rejection of familiar or unfamiliar foods, which ultimately leads to a habitual diet that lacks variety. Picky eaters express more extreme likes and dislikes for food, may only accept to eat food prepared in a specific way, or may have tantrums if they are denied certain foods. Parents of picky eaters also often struggle to feed their children at mealtimes. Picky eating is sometimes confused with food neophobia, which is a child’s refusal to taste new foods offered to them. The main difference between both is simply whether or not the the child has ever tasted the food before. Picky eating is more problematic than food neophobia because it leads to consuming an inadequate variety and amount of food in general, which may cause nutritional deficiencies. The foods that picky eaters reject most often are fruits and vegetables. As a result, they usually get less of the nutrients found in such foods such as vitamin C, vitamin E, folate and fibre.

Why are some children picky eaters?

Picky eating in children is typically manifestation highest between 2-6 years of age and begins declining afterward. That period is right about when children start learning to walk and move about on their own, and curiosity will have them picking up and putting different things in their mouths. It is important during this exploratory phase for children to distinguish between what is safe to eat and what is harmful. From an evolutionary perspective, toxins and harmful bacteria in food usually taste bitter or sour, so children have naturally developed aversions to those flavours to avoid intoxication. That is also why children love sweet foods: they are a source of sugars and energy which is essential for their survival and growth.

Why is eating a variety of foods important?

Eating higher amounts of fruits and veggies (FV) is associated with decreased risks of developing certain cancers. Eating FV helps us get many essential nutrients that are vital for healthy living. The 5-a-day recommendation stems from this idea, mainly because a typical daily intake of 5 portions of FV that vary from day to day usually guarantees getting adequate vitamins and minerals over the course of a week. Conversely, not eating enough FV or eating a very habitual diet is bound to contribute to nutritional deficiencies, which can be detrimental to health. Fibre is another important nutrient found abundantly in FV. AS a result, eating FV also provides a large portion of our daily fibre requirement, which aids in digestion and improves our body’s insulin response. Despite all these health benefits, recent figures show that only 21% of all UK children consume their daily recommended 5 portions of fruits and veggies.

How are those benefits related to picky eaters?

In general, fussy eaters tend to get less vitamin C, vitamin E, folate and fibres in their diet because of their low consumption of FV. Picky eating habits are frequently associated with constipation because of the low fibre intake. So, learning to eat more FV can also help prevent constipation in children. Many fussy eaters also tend to eat more sweetened foods instead of FV, which in the long run may lead to their preference for energy-dense nutrient-poor foods and contribute to excessive weight gain. Because FV are loaded with nutrients and are not high in calories, their consumption in place of more energy-dense foods is encouraged as an effective way to tackle and even prevent childhood obesity. Many studies have found that children have an increased intake of FV at 7 years of age if they were exposed to them more frequently and earlier on.  Picky eaters also eventually learn to accept FV more with time if they are more frequently exposed to the different flavours.

Most parents usually try giving a new food more than once to their children. However, if the child keeps rejecting the food after three to five times, parents feel that their child simply dislikes the food and so they stop offering it. However, studies show that picky eaters need to be exposed to the same food once a day for at least eight consecutive days until they start accepting it. In addition, because picky eaters give their parents a hard time and constantly refuse to eat healthy foods, parents may sometimes give in and decide to serve their child the food they prefer, which helps reinforce the child to only accept eating their favourite food and always refuse all other foods.

How do I encourage my child to eat a variety of food?

Dealing with a fussy eater is no walk in the park. Forcing your child to eat their plate of veggies will likely end in a tantrum, and eventually cause feelings of frustration for the both of you. That certainly helps no one. Here are some useful tips for you to try:

  • Try introducing very small amounts of a particular food over a period of 10-15 days. Large amounts of a certain veggie he or she doesn’t like will surely overwhelm them and will likely create an aversion from that food.
  • Even if you don’t like a particular food, try offering it to your child, he or she may have different taste preferences than you. Offer your child a large variety of fruits and vegetables, regardless of your preferences.
  • Children look up to their parents and elders all the time and even copy their behaviours. So, try to be a good role model for them. Eat your own variety of fruits and veggies throughout the day. Eating your veggies at the dinner table will certainly encourage your child to try. Research shows that the more people around the child who are eating a particular food, the more willing the child is to actually eat it.
  • Don’t put too much pressure on your child to try the food. If he or she refused to taste it today, try again tomorrow. Don’t be frustrated, and more importantly don’t take it out on your child; high parental pressure often leads the child to more food avoidance. Repetitive exposures in a non-coercive parental manner is important to encourage your child to try different foods.
  • Don’t add salt or flavourings to the new foods. Children should get exposed to the original flavours of the food in order for them to develop a healthy preference to its taste.
  • If you a pregnant or lactating mother, eat a large variety of fruits and vegetables, because different flavours from the mother’s diet pass on to the baby through the amniotic fluid or breastmilk and can expose the child to a variety of flavours from early on. When the child learns to eat solid foods, he or she will already be familiar with plenty of flavours.
  • Don’t feed your child commercial ready-prepared fruits and vegetables from jars or tins as those usually have uniform flavours and textures. Instead, feed them raw or home-cooked ones to introduce more variety and individual tastes and textures.
  • Most importantly, remember that early and repeated exposure is key. Between 8-15 exposures usually does the trick.

 Keep Calm and Carry On

If you’re feeling worried by now, don’t. Fussy eating is a very normal habit of children. After all, from an evolutionary perspective, it has helped our little ones survive by protecting them from foods they are not familiar with – ones that may be poisonous or harmful. Introducing different foods frequently to children and allowing them to have a small taste of it over time will eventually result in the child accepting – and even growing to like – the food. Be patient and persistent, and always try to think of the end result: if your baby starts eating broccoli without complaints, that’s surely a feat!

 

Foodtalk offers Managing Mealtimes and Fussy Eating training for nurseries and childminders.  Please contact us on info@foodtalk.org.uk for more information.