Nutritious Meals: A common cause of parental concern is the “fussy eater” child. Many of the causes of this tendency remain unknown but fortunately it rarely indicates serious underlying conditions. There are numerous tips available for how to help fussy eaters have nutritious meals.
Please note, this covers only the age range 1-6 years. Fussy eating in older children and teenagers may require different considerations and approaches. It’s also assumed here that the child is being offered good nutritious food at its normal mealtimes.
Why children eat
Children eat for primarily three reasons:
- their survival instinct;
- because it generates pleasant sensations through assuaging hunger and ‘nice tastes’;
- to emulate the observed behaviours of others around them.
In theory and for some children, this is all more-or-less automatic. Many babies and toddlers eat almost anything they’re offered without complaint and with seeming enjoyment.
Other children though, sometimes from immediately moving onto solids, start to express very strong preferences for some foodstuffs over others. In some instances, they may spit out or refuse some tastes and/or textures. These are referred to as ‘fussy children’.
Children that seem reluctant to eat most foodstuffs may be suffering from one of many potential medical conditions. If it continues, they may begin losing weight and a doctor should be consulted.
In the majority of cases, it is simply that the child is expressing preferences. They may refuse certain foodstuffs and tastes while seemingly liking some alternatives. The exact reasons for this are, at best, poorly understood. At one time it was assumed that the child was reacting to what its body needed for good health or avoiding allergens etc. However, that is now largely discounted and for babies and younger toddlers, the only explanation is ‘preference’.
As children age and begin mixing with others, particularly in the pre and early school years, some fussy eating habits are likely to be picked up from other children and the kids’ ‘grapevine’. Fussy eating here has its origins in child nonsense rumours such as “brown bread is poisonous” or “vegetables make you ill”. It can be difficult or impossible to insulate your child entirely from this source of fussy eating habits.
Some children may also become fussy eaters for reasons such as:
- sudden changes of cuisine and ingredients – that can happen if they’ve relocated to another area or country where food may be different;
- emotional stress;
- emulating a care provider’s observed behaviours;
- attention seeking and competing with siblings for parental time.
What you can do
In the case of babies and toddlers, there is very little that can be done. If a baby refuses to eat certain foodstuffs, then they cannot be logically reasoned with. Their rejections will need to be accepted and preferences noted – though that can be revisited as they grow.
For toddlers, it’s always a good idea to try and ensure you’re sharing a meal with them. Let them see you’re eating something and there is a reasonable prospect of them wanting to eat it too. Make clear to them you’re enjoying the food.
Some toddlers reject food simply because of its appearance, perhaps an unfamiliar colour etc. You can try simply re-packaging the food, something that often works.
Another useful ploy is to let your child see you preparing the food. Assuming they’re old enough, if they join in then they’ll be familiar with the food before it goes onto their plate.
Very young children have very different palates to adults and that means heavy or strong seasoning should be avoided. What may seem mild and pleasant to an adult may seem like fire to a baby. It’s usually better to be very conservative with spices and herbs.
Although there are very different and strong views on this subject, some experts argue that children in this age range shouldn’t be allowed to pick and choose their menu. A child should never be told they must eat something or face punishment but it may be useful to make clear to them that this is the food being offered and there is no alternative for that meal.
Finally, try to avoid letting your child develop in-between meals snacking and refrigerator grazing habits. Ideally, when a child sits down to eat, they should feel hungry. If they have become used to eating plenty of treats beforehand, it may be encouraging them to argue over their main meal.
Above all, if your child is a fussy eater, don’t allow it to become an issue. Do not become angry or frustrated. If they refuse food, remove it amicably and wait for the next meal to arrive as normal.
These things may all help develop reasonable eating habits in children.