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

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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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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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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How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.
When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.

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