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Picky eaters: Coping with food anxiety

fussy eater | picky eater | food anxiety



While I dislike the term ‘fussy eaters’ it’s a hugely common issue that takes up around 40% of the parenting emails sent to me each week. Having worked with children and families for over 24 years, I have come to realise that fussy eating is something that many, if not all children go through during childhood.

When it comes to the fussy eater, I find parents deal with it in one of two ways:

  1. The ‘Eat this or eat nothing’ approach (Demand they eat all on their plate or get nothing else until the next meal, including snack bans!)
  2. The ‘give up and give in’ technique. (Try to coax their child into eating something new – then give up and give their child their favourite food or treat.)


The fussy eater

For grown-ups – our dislikes and likes determine what we eat. There’s no adult forcing us to eat our greens or ensure we’ve had our recommended daily fruit intake.

There’s no food battle – you get the pudding without the broccoli, you eat the crisps without the soup, because you can! But for little ones – the daily battle can be a really stressful situation.

Think like a child! Ok, so kids can get tricky at times – the wilful toddler who spits out your homemade fish pie isn’t your ideal dinner guest, but the minute you can put yourself in your childs place, it can make ‘fussy eating’ a whole lot more manageable.

What’s your worst food? Go on – imagine something that makes you pull that screwed up ‘eww’ face! For me – it’s sprouts. That vile taste and texture really had me worked up as a child and drove my poor mum crazy!

It’s the same for your little one. They are not doing it to wind you up or be naughty (although – yes, on occasions, some children do ‘play up’ at mealtimes.) Like you, they have tastes and some foods are just not acceptable and can cause genuine stress and anxiety.

How do I cope with a picky eater?

fussy eater | picky eater | food anxietyThe important thing is to not make a huge deal out of it. Don’t get wound up, don’t panic, and don’t stress that they’ll always be this way.

Most children who are fussy eaters are going through a natural phase in childhood and will eventually get passed their dislikes and refusals of certain foods. They’ll also get plenty enough to grow and thrive – so don’t panic that they are going to starve.

What if it’s more than just being fussy?

Children who have heightened sensory sensitivity are much more likely to be fussy eaters because their heightened oral sensitivity can make them anxious of certain flavours, smells and textures.

For sensory sensitivity, foods that are smooth, cool and plain are the way forward to avoiding upsets and further food issues.

Try foods like yoghurts, plain crackers, plain cheeses, blended fruits and vegetables. (Carrot mash is a fab favourite of some of the children I have worked with who have sensory issues)

It’s in the genes!

fussy eater | picky eater | food anxietyResearch suggests that fussy eating can be genetic! A *study involving twins suggested food fussiness as well as food neophobia (unwillingness to try new foods) may partially be the result of genetics.

The researchers looked at differences in parent-reported behaviour between identical twins (who share 100% of their DNA) and fraternal twins (who share 50%) to estimate the influence genetics had on eating attitudes. They estimate that for food fussiness, 46% of cases may be down to genetic influences, and for food neophobia, 58% may be down to genetic influences.

However, despite a strong genetic basis, children’s behaviour can be changed. The researchers themselves stressed in their conclusion that “parent-led eating behaviour change programs to fussy or food neophobic young children is likely to be effective in decreasing their expression [gene influence]”


Tips for dealing with picky eating

fussy eater | picky eater | food anxietyThe key is to not let it take over your life. Mealtimes don’t have to be stressful – the more stressed you get about it, the more your child will pick up on it.

Try, try and try again! O.K – not the easiest thing to do, but by getting your child to at least try something repeatedly (say once a week) at least 10 times, will determine if the genuinely dislike it, or are just going through a phase. It also sends a message to the brain that this food is OK, because they have had it so many times!

When offering the food over and over again – change it’s form! For example – carrots: Just a nibble of a cooked carrot sliced on the plate, the next week it’s a grated piece of cold carrot, the following week, the carrots are mashed into the cottage pie, and so on.

Eat with friends! Get together with other families or have lunch or tea dates with school friends. Often watching their peers eat things can help them get over certain food worries.

In fact, many toddlers who had fussy eating habits go on to eat a variety of meals by year 2 of primary school simply through copying their peers!

Reward and remind: Let them know it;s OK to be different, but that trying something new is an important life skill! You try something you don’t like too – make it a fun game so that you can pull funny faces together and not make it into a battle ground at mealtimes.

Reward their efforts with a star on their ‘food trying chart’ or pop a star into their reward jar! Have their favourite food in for days when picky eating hits a peak.

Coping with playdates: An easy way of dealing with tea invites or playdates is to explain they’re going through a picky eating phase and you are happy to provide a packed lunch to make their play date easier. (Most parents will thank you for this – rather than struggling and stressing to make your distressed child something they like instead of the marvellous meal they spent hours creating!

Eat together: Children love to copy – so try and sit together for at least one of the meals in a day and eat well! Don’t, like me, leave the crusts on your sandwiches (a habit my two have now picked up!) Make sounds as you try your food – talk about the taste and texture and encourage your child to try their food. Say things like “Mmmm try the potato – it tastes so good with the beans!”

If, like me, you eat your main meal in later in the evening than your child, try and sit down with them while they eat, rather than pottering around the kitchen doing jobs (a habit many of us busy parents do!) The social experience of eating can then take their mind way from the actual eating!

Focus on weekly intake – not daily! Try not to worry if your child has refuses to eat everything at mealtimes. It’s more important to think about what they eat over a week rather than a day.

As long as your child is active and gaining weight, and it’s obvious they’re not ill, then they’re getting enough to eat, even if it may not seem like it to you.

Smaller is better! Try not to over-face your child with big meal portions. Instead, offer smaller meals, or finger picking foods so they can choose and pick what they eat. Uf mealtimes become too much to bare – try little amounts and often until the phase has passed.

Make food fun! By making meals look ‘woah’ rather than ‘blurgh!’ you are halfway to winning the food battle.

fussy eater | picky eater | food anxietyYou don’t have to go full on Mary Berry presentation, but making sandwiches into shapes, or investing in divider plates for picnic style teas – is a great way if encouraging heathy eating.

There are some fab ideas like the ones pictured over on the ‘Eats amazing’ site. Pop over and take a look!

You are not a failure!

With the fussy eater comes the parent guilt that you are getting it all wrong. But you are not! So what if Polly eats a variety of cuisine and Toby is a little Jamie Oliver in the kitchen? Ignore your friends and family’s stories of their amazing eaters, because every child is different! Focus on your own happiness and don’t feel pressured to ‘fix’ your child quickly. You are not a failure (and neither is your child for having food issues!)

Try and relax! More often than not, it really is just a phase, and your picky eating 5 year old, may one day travel the world as a twenty-something adventurer trying a wonderful variety of food!

For more tips and techniques for coping with picky eaters and food anxiety, have a read of my other tips here and here.





*Study from researchers at The Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, UK and the Department of Psychology, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Norway.

Train sandwich pic credit: Eats Amazing