I remember the day my friend’s baby was ready for lunch and I offered to help; Sophia was 17 months at the time. I was a young mum myself and my baby was not even on solids yet so, without much thought, I grabbed one of the baby food tins stored at Sophia’s house and asked her mum if I should warm it up. ‘No she won’t have this one’ was her reply, ‘she doesn’t like chicken’. I then proceeded to prepare something else, which Sophia ate whilst watching her favourite cartoon.
Why do I remember this moment vividly? I was shocked for some reason, the tinned puree had seemed a perfectly good option to me at the time, I had never heard of food refusal amongst children.
I just knew it couldn’t be over, right? I mean this child had refused chicken and she was never going to eat it ever again? In her life?
As the years went by, Sophia’s refusals became the norm and many foods were ruled out, going out to a restaurant became hellish between parents and daughter. Could the child be having more chips? That’s all she would have! Better something than nothing! But then both her parents would lecture her on how unhealthy her eating was, the tension was palpable, the arguments ever-present.
It was a slippery slope into picky eating, which my friends lost control upon very early indeed and which caused them and their daughter a lot of angst and stress.
Our relationship with food (good or bad) starts young!
Fast forward to 2018, Sophia is not a confident eater, rules out many foods, diets occasionally and is still being lectured about food choices, by her worried parents.
As a friend, I never got involved in those discussions, even though I often witnessed them and was informed of how concerned my friends were. I just knew it was a very sensitive subject, prone to make one feel guilty or inadequate as a parent.
It is especially tough for mums, because as mothers our relationship is based from the word ‘go’ on how we nourish our child. We are mothers and feeders and our child depends on us for survival!
When things are difficult or not going according to plans, we may feel that we are failing our children. We may fear being judged for what we put in our shopping trolley or in our child’s lunch box. We may end up arguing with our partners about how we feed our children. Complete strangers may comment on our baby or child’s size. As a result, emotions and confusion can run high.
Causes of fussy eating and what to do
However, there are numerous reasons why a child may be showing fussy tendencies and so within a family, as you raise your children in the same manner, you may have one child who eats everything and another who will complain about each and every one of your food offering.
I certainly have those two children and people who work in the field often share their own similar stories: no-one is immune to having one of those more sensitive children.
Understanding that this is not your fault is the first step towards successfully preventing your child from sliding down the slippery slope! Now that we have removed mums’ guilt, well almost, we can deal with fussy eating.
The good news is: it works and done early it will make your life easier! Indeed it is paramount to take a long-term view: our relationship with food carries on all of our lives and as our kids will become adults, they will need to be comfortable and confident with how and what they eat.
You too can raise confident eaters with these 5 starter tips:
1. Don’t take food refusal personally consider it’s part of your child’s development.
2. Offer foods again and again, to improve familiarity but cook it differently to improve your child’s tasting experience.
3. Eat together as a family and share the same foods (most foods can be adapted to babies over 9-12months with a good food processor).
4. Avoid commenting on what is eaten, what should be eaten, or what is not eaten!
5. Get your child involved in food preparation – let them touch and feel and watch, and get them helping in the kitchen!
6. Avoid labelling your child as fussy.
There are many more things you can do to raise a confident eater, try to implement fewer tips at a time so as to not to be overwhelmed or discouraged. Seek help if you need to be supported in your endeavour.
Marie-France is a qualified dietitian-nutritionist, from France, who has lived for almost 20 years in Australia. She has 2 children and a step-child, all in their late teens- early twenties. She has spent over 15 years researching children’s relationship with eating and used her dual-culture to inform her programs. She is also a “wholefood-ist” and home economist who shares numerous wholesome family recipes via Instagram. She co-hosts mums supported, a free Facebook group, that’s focused on raising confident eaters and great sleepers. She blogs on fussy eating, self-regulation etc. To find out more about her programs check out her website.