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Got a picky eat? We explore the reasoning behind why some kids refuse certain food, and how to overcome this.

There’s something about having a fussy eating child that induces a specific type of anxiety in us as mothers. Maybe it’s the sight of watching our little one play around with the peas on their plate that takes us back to the dining tables of our own childhoods, when we were gently scolded by our parents for not eating our greens. Or perhaps it’s just an innate, intuitiveness in us as mums that recognises the importance of our children eating nutritious, balanced meals to support their bodies and help to keep them strong and healthy. Whatever the case may be, dealing with fussy eaters can become both mentally exhausting and frustrating. So how can we deal with it? Firstly, we must stress the point that fussy eating is quite commonplace and is often part of the developmental stage for children that they eventually outgrow. But if you are currently in the midst of the picky eating stage and beside yourself with worry that your child isn’t getting their ‘5 a day’, let’s first have a look at some of the reasons why some children are fussy eaters and some aren’t.

Some children are more sensitive to food

As simple as it may seem, some children are just more sensitive when it comes to food in comparison to others. They may not like the colour, texture, smell, or shape of particular foods, and that’s okay. The good news is the more we expose our offspring to a wide variety of foods, the more likely they are to eventually expand their palate.

Most children have little dietary quirks

Most children (and even us as adults) have our little quirks about food. For instance, some children won’t eat bread without the crust being cut off, or they have an aversion to mushy textures no matter how much we try to convince them that baked beans or mashed potato is delicious. Take note of the things your child likes to eat, and the things they don’t so you can tailor their meals accordingly. Of course, use your discernment. If they request pizza and chips on a daily basis, you’ll have to work around that and ensure that meals are balanced and always include the major food groups required to support the health of a growing child.

Adults are more tolerant of stronger tasting foods.

If your child balks at even the very idea of eating Brussel sprouts, they are certainly not alone. Cast your mind back to that dining table of your childhood home mentioned earlier, and chances are you were none too enthused about the green stuff that was piled upon your plate either. Research has revealed that adults have a much better tolerance for sour and bitter tasting foods than children. Furthermore, science suggests that there may be evolutionary reasoning behind this. An article published by Parenting Science puts forward the theory that children may be rejecting bitter tastes due to natural selection – they are simply hard wired to do so as an act of self-preservation. Bitter foods can be potentially toxic, and children are more vulnerable to toxicity than us as adults, which may be the reason why most kids dislike bitter tasting food. Of course, we have now evolved to a place where we know which foods are safe and those that are harmful to consume, so continue to introduce your child to stronger tastes (green vegetables, spices, sour tasting citrus fruits) and hopefully their perception of certain flavours will eventually change.

A child’s sense of taste develops before they are born

It’s interesting to add that a child’s dietary preferences evolve even before we give birth. Tastebuds emerge a mere 8 weeks after gestation, and subsequently the food that a pregnant woman eats will filter through the amniotic fluid, which means our tastes are cultivated as early as the foetal stage. Similarly, food flavours are transferred from mother to child at the breastfeeding stage. This information is useful as it aligns with the theory shown by studies that the more children are exposed to a wide variety of foods from a young age, the more accepting they are when it comes to introducing new foods into their diets. So, if you are pregnant don’t feel you have to abstain from a rich and varied diet. As long as you are mindful to avoid foods classified as unsafe to eat during pregnancy, you should be fine, and could even potentially be helping your child develop a refined palate.

How to get your ‘picky eater’ to be open to new food.

If you are currently at your wits end trying to get your little one to eat to no avail, you are not alone. According to recent research commissioned by doddl, 69% of British parents find family mealtimes a challenge, and 59% of today’s parents would describe their children as fussy eaters. Here are some suggestions to help you overcome this.

Make mealtimes fun

There’s no denying that dealing with a fussy eater can be frustrating, so try and counteract this by injecting a little fun in mealtime prep. Allow them to get involved in cooking with you, and don’t worry about the mess and spillage – it’s all a part of the fun.

Eat together

Although it may be tempting to feed your child as soon as possible and eat your meal separately later on during the evening, experts advise against this and encourage you to eat alongside your fussy eater. Stacey Zimmels, doddl’s expert partner and feeding & swallowing specialist, says, “Make sure you eat together. Your child will be more likely to try something new if they someone else eating it.”

Don’t force it

One of the biggest mistakes we make as parents trying to combat fussy eaters is forcing them to eat the food we want them to eat. This can have a detrimental psychological impact on them, and they may begin to associate particular foods with bad experiences and negative emotions. Stacey Zimmels, adds, “Pressuring, coercing, bribing, threatening, rewarding your child to eat may bring short term success but isn’t shown to help with food acceptance in the long term.”

Slowly introduce new foods into their diet

Don’t overwhelm your fussy eating child with too many new foods at once. Instead, slowly introduce new flavours into their diet: add a new vegetable alongside their mash potato so it’s not such a big deal. Talk to them about what’s on their plate, you could say something like “Asparagus is a super yummy veggie, give it a try.”

Keep going

Don’t expect results overnight – trying to get your fussy eater to be open to new flavours is definitely a long game. There will be days when they enthusiastically eat something new on the plate and the next day they may turn their nose up at it. Try not to get frustrated and accept that it’s an ongoing journey. The most important factor when creating a new habit is consistency.

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