How to Banish Fussy Eating (According to Science)

How to Banish Fussy Eating (According to Science)

For something that is meant to be life-giving and nourishing for the body, mind and family spirit, mealtimes can be a nightmare. Not just any nightmare, but the type that can only come with a battle-weary parent and a small human who has tasted more victory at mealtimes than vegetables. 

I have heard there are kiddos who come in the version that eat everything that’s put down in front of them. That’s not how it was at my house, and if it’s not that way at your home either, take heart. Fussy eating, as tough as it is to deal with when it happens, is a very ‘normal’ part of childhood. 

‘… children naturally go through stages during their toddler years when they are often fussy and will refuse new foods, particularly vegetables. This is a normal developmental stage for children, but it can often lead to a restricted diet as children become fussier and fussier about what they will not eat. Families need evidence-based scientific advice about what they can do to help encourage children to taste, and eventually like, new or disliked fruits and vegetables.’ – Dr Claire Farrow, Aston Research Centre for Child Health.

As comforting as it is to know that your little one isn’t doing anything out of the ordinary,  it will bring cold relief when the dinner table becomes a battleground. Now, science has found a way to help. New research has found that with three simple steps, parents can positively change their child’s attitude towards food. 

The research, published in the journal, Appetite, found that introducing three steps dramatically increased children’s liking and eating of vegetables that they had previously rejected.

The steps … Tell me the steps.

The important thing to remember is persistence. You have to be persistent. (Yes I know – I wish it could be easier too!) Knowing the difference these steps can make will make it easier to stand firm. Little ones are tough. They are skilled and highly effective negotiators. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. Here’s what you need to know to bring yourself up to their level of negotiating prowess.

Step 1 –  Repetition: Repeatedly expose your child to the food. Try the same vegetable for at least 14 days in a row. Be patient. The idea is to help them become familiar with the food. Kids might need to try something up to ten times – maybe more – before they feel familiar enough to be okay with it. If they reject the food don’t worry – it’s not over, it’s a win. It means you’re one try closer to mealtime bliss. Or a taste without argument. Same thing.

Step 2 – Role Modelling: Eat it first and show them how delicious it is. 

Step 3 – Rewards: Praise them for trying, even if they’ve only taken a tiny bite. Or a lick. It all counts. All great achievements start with plenty of small, imperfect steps. You know it does.

Do this with the same vegetable/s for at least 14 days.

‘Our research shows that a combination of repeatedly exposing children to vegetables, rewarding them for trying the food and modelling enjoying eating the vegetable yourself, can help to encourage children to taste and eventually like vegetables which they did not previously like eating.’ – Dr Claire Farrow.

The eating behaviours that kids learn in childhood will often move with them as they get older. The individual steps might not come as a surprise, but knowing that they make a difference will make it easier to keep going with them when your little warrior is giving you every reason call it quits for now and try again another time.

4 Comments

Karen B

I grew up a picky eater and wanted to make sure my kids did not suffer the same as I did.
1. Everything they eat is good. No criticism. No battles at meals. State what good eaters they are. It really sets up their confidence.
2. No fast food. No sugar, candy cookies before age one. No soda! It ruins their ability to taste regular food and sets them up for a lifetime of bad eating habits.
3. Give them mashed fruit and avocados before teeth. Bring a banana along for a snack. Crunchy cut up veggies with a little salad dressing, when they can chew, for a before dinner snack.
4. Make healthy food taste good. Add dressing, butter and parmigian cheese, tomato sauce, maple syrup, oregano, a little garlic.
5. Keep variety coming. Goat cheese on crackers, whole grains with pesto, pickles, etc..
6. If they don’t like something, no problem. No drama. Just acknowledge that it may be a food they will like when they are older, and again, what good eaters they are eating their other food! If you like it keep enjoying it.
So, my kids grew up without the burden of pickiness and with the ability to make healthy choices.

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washingtondc

My relative is of mixed heritage. It saddens me that he still does not like rice or eggs. I don’t know if he will ever truly enjoy Asian cuisines…or the cuisine of our people, specifically. He is still young. He takes after his dad’s tastes. Asian foods are much more flavorful. Rice is a big part of it. Eggs are used in many dishes and cultural cuisines.

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Muhammad Mubashir Ullah Durrani

Children are influenced by the world.
My little sister who is 6 wont eat food because she is worried about the calories.
Dear Lord, I don’t have it in me to say something.
She eats the salad and yoghurt. A wee bit of the other stuff like meat and rice. Is this fuzzy eating?
What does one do in such a situation?
Thanks.

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Physical activity is the natural end to the fight or flight response (which is where the physical feelings of an anxiety attack come from). Walking will help to burn the adrenalin and neurochemicals that have surged the body to prepare it for flight or fight, and which are causing the physical symptoms (racy heart, feeling sick, sweaty, short breaths, dry mouth, trembly or tense in the limbs etc). As well as this, the rhythm of walking will help to calm their anxious amygdala. Brains love rhythm, and walking is a way to give them this. 
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Try to help your young one access their steady breaths while walking, but it is very likely that they will only be able to do this if they’ve practised outside of an anxiety attack. During anxiety, the brain is too busy to try anything unfamiliar. Practising will help to create neural pathways that will make breathing an easier, more accessible response during anxiety. If they aren't able to access strong steady breaths, you might need to do it for them. This will be just as powerful - in the same way they can catch your anxiety, they will also be able to catch your calm. When you are able to assume a strong, calm, steady presence, this will clear the way for your brave ones to do the same.
The more your young one is able to verbalise what their anxiety feels like, the more capacity they will have to identify it, acknowledge it and act more deliberately in response to it. With this level of self-awareness comes an increased ability to manage the feeling when it happens, and less likelihood that the anxiety will hijack their behaviour. 

Now - let’s give their awareness some muscle. If they are experts at what their anxiety feels like, they are also experts at what it takes to be brave. They’ve felt anxiety and they’ve moved through it, maybe not every time - none of us do it every time - maybe not even most times, but enough times to know what it takes and how it feels when they do. Maybe it was that time they walked into school when everything in them was wanting to walk away. Maybe that time they went in for goal, or down the water slide, or did the presentation in front of the class. Maybe that time they spoke their own order at the restaurant, or did the driving test, or told you there would be alcohol at the party. Those times matter, because they show them they can move through anxiety towards brave. They might also taken for granted by your young one, or written off as not counting as brave - but they do count. They count for everything. They are evidence that they can do hard things, even when those things feel bigger than them. 

So let’s expand those times with them and for them. Let’s expand the wisdom that comes with that, and bring their brave into the light as well. ‘What helped you do that?’ ‘What was it like when you did?’ ‘I know everything in you wanted to walk away, but you didn’t. Being brave isn’t about doing things easily. It’s about doing those hard things even when they feel bigger than us. I see you doing that all the time. It doesn’t matter that you don’t do them every time -none of us are brave every time- but you have so much courage in you my love, even when anxiety is making you feel otherwise.’

Let them also know that you feel like this too sometimes. It will help them see that anxiety happens to all of us, and that even though it tells a deficiency story, it is just a story and one they can change the ending of.
During adolescence, our teens are more likely to pay attention to the positives of a situation over the negatives. This can be a great thing. The courage that comes from this will help them try new things, explore their independence, and learn the things they need to learn to be happy, healthy adults. But it can also land them in bucketloads of trouble. 

Here’s the thing. Our teens don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to go behind our backs, but they also don’t want to be controlled by us, or have any sense that we might be stifling their way towards independence. The cold truth of it all is that if they want something badly enough, and if they feel as though we are intruding or that we are making arbitrary decisions just because we can, or that we don’t get how important something is to them, they have the will, the smarts and the means to do it with or without or approval. 

So what do we do? Of course we don’t want to say ‘yes’ to everything, so our job becomes one of influence over control. To keep them as safe as we can, rather than saying ‘no’ (which they might ignore anyway) we want to engage their prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) so they can be more considered in their decision making. 

Our teens are very capable of making good decisions, but because the rational, logical, thinking prefrontal cortex won’t be fully online until their 20s (closer to 30 in boys), we need to wake it up and bring it to the decision party whenever we can. 

Do this by first softening the landing:
‘I can see how important this is for you. You really want to be with your friends. I absolutely get that.’
Then, gently bring that thinking brain to the table:
‘It sounds as though there’s so much to love in this for you. I don’t want to get in your way but I need to know you’ve thought about the risks and planned for them. What are some things that could go wrong?’
Then, we really make the prefrontal cortex kick up a gear by engaging its problem solving capacities:
‘What’s the plan if that happens.’
Remember, during adolescence we switch from managers to consultants. Assume a leadership presence, but in a way that is warm, loving, and collaborative.♥️
Big feelings and big behaviour are a call for us to come closer. They won’t always feel like that, but they are. Not ‘closer’ in an intrusive ‘I need you to stop this’ way, but closer in a ‘I’ve got you, I can handle all of you’ kind of way - no judgement, no need for you to be different - I’m just going to make space for this feeling to find its way through. 

Our kids and teens are no different to us. When we have feelings that fill us to overloaded, the last thing we need is someone telling us that it’s not the way to behave, or to calm down, or that we’re unbearable when we’re like this. Nup. What we need, and what they need, is a safe place to find our out breath, to let the energy connected to that feeling move through us and out of us so we can rest. 
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But how? First, don’t take big feelings personally. They aren’t a reflection on you, your parenting, or your child. Big feelings have wisdom contained in them about what’s needed more, or less, or what feels intolerable right now. Sometimes it might be as basic as a sleep or food. Maybe more power, influence, independence, or connection with you. Maybe there’s too much stress and it’s hitting their ceiling and ricocheting off their edges. Like all wisdom, it doesn’t always find a gentle way through. That’s okay, that will come. Our kids can’t learn to manage big feelings, or respect the wisdom embodied in those big feelings if they don’t have experience with big feelings. 
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We also need to make sure we are responding to them in the moment, not a fear or an inherited ‘should’ of our own. These are the messages we swallowed whole at some point - ‘happy kids should never get sad or angry’, ‘kids should always behave,’ ‘I should be able to protect my kids from feeling bad,’ ‘big feelings are bad feelings’, ‘bad behaviour means bad kids, which means bad parents.’ All these shoulds are feisty show ponies that assume more ‘rightness’ than they deserve. They are usually historic, and when we really examine them, they’re also irrelevant.
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Finally, try not to let the symptoms of big feelings disrupt the connection. Then, when calm comes, we will have the influence we need for the conversations that matter.
"Be patient. We don’t know what we want to do or who we want to be. That feels really bad sometimes. Just keep reminding us that it’s okay that we don’t have it all figured out yet, and maybe remind yourself sometimes too."
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 #parentingteens #neurodevelopment #positiveparenting #parenting #neuronurtured #braindevelopment #adolescence  #neurodevelopment #parentingteens

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