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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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