Researchers have identified a handful of reasons children are so picky about their eating. These issues relate to young children and older children alike. Such challenges include:
- Actual food preferences. Believe it or not, our children really don’t like some foods, and they really DO like other foods. Sometimes we can forget that we all feel like that about certain foods, regardless of their nutritional value.
- Wanting to be in control. At around 18-months of age, our children start to discover that they can be in charge. They like this! Food is an arena they often feel they can exert their newfound sense of control, and they exploit this feeling, often to their parent’s distress. When children feel a lack of control, they often find ways to become the authority in their lives. Food refusal not only provides that feeling of control, it is also rewarding because parents either give in and offer their child alternative foods (that usually possess lower nutritional value) or they give them lots of attention.
- Lack of boundaries and expectations. When a child creates a fuss over food, parents experience a tension between trying to placate their child (no one wants screaming children at mealtime – or any time really) and trying to encourage eating. Whether it’s a food that has been presented many times or experimentation with new foods, picky eaters know that causing a fuss is likely to lead to the reward of not having to eat something they don’t want. They may even receive what they do want. In the case of food with low nutritional value, this is a concern. While parents must be mindful of food preferences, setting boundaries and expectations is crucial, but it must be done is such a way that it does not disempower the child by trampling their autonomy.
- Lack of routine. Studies show that families with fewer routines around mealtime are more likely to experience fussiness in their children. These routines could include everything from a specific time and place for a meal to be served, and even practices such as saying grace/giving thanks for a meal, or having a specific seat for the child, or even a habitual way of serving food.
- Mealtime stress. If mealtime is too busy or too stressful, young children may associate meals with unhappiness. Mealtimes where parents or children are eating in a rush or are not eating together at all leave children with poor models for how to enjoy good food. Sometimes families might come together for a meal and end up experiencing conflict (either between parents, or between children and a parent). The stress associated with these interactions (including stress created by picky eating) could lead to negative associations with food and mealtime and leave them disinterested in food options or eating with family.
- Sensory issues and sensitivities. Children may also be picky because of food sensitivities, non-typical development (children on the autism spectrum may be rigid in their eating patterns, or have sensory issues around food), flavours and textures, lack of familiarity with a new food, or even a medical issue (like food allergies or reflux) that parents may be unaware of.
- Emotional moments. Even if it is unrelated to the food on their plate, children who are brought to the table for a meal when they are too tired, too hungry, too stressed, too angry, or too emotional are unlikely to eat. If we choose an unhelpful response (either because we are so tired ourselves, or because our best intentions work out poorly), our children may learn to associate negative emotions with meals, or they may learn that they will be rewarded when they have big emotions at mealtimes.
- Picky examples. We may not know it but sometimes our own food habits can provide a model for picky eating in our children. If Dad complains that he doesn’t like greens, or if Mum makes a fuss about not enjoying mince (even in spaghetti bolognese!) our children may learn to be vocal about their preferences, and do as we do – even to the point of refusing to eat foods they find disagreeable. Big brothers and sisters might also model fussiness. While it is normal and reasonable for people to have preferences, we should also model a willingness to eat foods we may not be completely fond of from time to time.
- Food neophobia. Neo means new. Phobia means fear. If someone is a food neophobe, they are afraid of eating new foods. Picky eaters typically avoid foods that are unfamiliar, but this can extend so they may become so narrow in their preferences that they avoid any foods that are unfamiliar to them as well. Food neophobia involves not just an unwillingness to try new foods, but an actual fear of new foods that can be sufficiently distressing that they will avoid meal times, and even avoid situations where food is available that is unfamiliar. Food neophobes are most likely to be found on the autism spectrum due to rigid preferences and unwillingness to try unfamiliar things. Research shows that avoidance only fuels the anxiety associated with food neophobia. Careful work with a healthcare professional is typically suggested in these cases.
However, it is worth recognising that while most young children don’t meet clinical criteria for food neophobia, their fussiness can feel like it. Most toddlers will grow out of their fussiness (or even neophobia) if they see people around them enjoying a wide variety of foods.
Phew! No wonder parents find picky eating one of the trickiest challenges they deal with!
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