Food aversion (fussy eating) is one of the most common issues parents struggle to address. You will notice I choose to label this as food aversions rather than the usual label of fussy eating…
The reason for this is, if you have ever tried to encourage a child to eat carrots (for example) that does not want to eat carrots, you will know they are not being ‘fussy’ they are trying everything within their power to show you their utter dislike for those carrots.
The word fussy means ‘finicky’ ‘particular’ or ‘hard to please’ this does not sit right with me. If I offered a fussy eater, their favourite food usually sweet confectionary they are not hard to please then, they happily gobble up their favourite food.
The word aversion means ‘a strong dislike or disinclination’ which fits any child I have observed refusing to eat the food their parent has lovingly made, their face screwed up, spitting out the food, pushing away the plate or bowl, lips sealed shut.
I understand the frustration of managing food aversions as you do have to be a mind reader on occasions for example your child’s favourite food yesterday was tuna pasta BUT… today they will not even touch the bowl on the table because it has tuna pasta in it. We can help and support our children to develop better eating habits though, first I want to share with you some facts about food aversions.
Food aversion and fear of new foods (food neophobia) are a normal part of a child’s development, it affects between 10% and 20% of children under five. Fear of new foods typically starts between 18 months and two years old. A child who appears to have food aversions but is growing well is probably eating a sufficient balance of foods and getting enough energy and nutrients.
Severe selective eating is rare and generally starts from early feeding difficulties or significant health problems. Usually, health professionals are already supporting when a child is identified as having a severe selective eating disorder.
We do need to address food aversions though because if we leave children to eat the food they choose and not address the food aversion you will see their diet limit significantly, which can then lead to them lacking in nutrition, which will then limit them being able to thrive and grow.
So how can we address these food aversions? Read on support tips to try at home:
Don’t panic and NEVER force-feed your child
Children read your body language, if you are anxious or frustrated around meal times they will think and feel that something is wrong and will not be able to eat.
Force-feeding creates extreme fear and upset, which then becomes an association with eating, this can delay any progress and stop eating food altogether.
Never force children to finish everything on their plate, show trust in the child to know when they are full, or had enough. Children who are made to eat everything learn to disregard their body saying they are full (which can lead to obesity in later years), and also to dislike the foods they are pressured to eat and these aversions may last into adulthood.
If you have concerns please do speak to the nursery teams (perhaps on zoom currently) or contact your health visitor for support. But in general:
Consistency is key
The approach must be consistent and it is essential that all those involved at mealtimes agree and follow the same strategies. Please speak to the nursery teams to discuss strategies so we can support the consistent approach. This can be particularly important if parents and extended family are sharing responsibility for children.
Offer small portions
Give children small servings at first, with the opportunity to have second helpings if they finish the first serving, as they may find larger portions off-putting. For more guidance on portion sizes, please visit the Caroline Walker Trust website:
Regular and repeated exposure
A child must taste the food to change their preferences; repeated exposure to the food will support their chances to try it. It can take as many as 10 to 15 tastings before they accept it. If children are resistant to trying new foods, offer them small tastes, and make sure the child feels in control of the situation. For example, you should allow them to spit out the food into a tissue if they do not like it.
Be careful here, it’s so easy to fall in to ‘if you eat a spoon of peas you can have chocolate’, doing this places more value on the ‘nice’ food and more repulsion to the food they are refusing to eat. Generally, it’s recommended to not use any food as a reward or as a punishment
Always praise children for attempting to eat or for trying new food. Even if they just place the food to their lips. Do not make a big scene when in front of others as this could then cause an embarrassment reaffirming the food aversion.
If you would like to use or give your child a physical reward small stickers or non-food items can work as rewards for trying the food.
Relax and show the enjoyment of making a meal and eating it together. Getting the children involved in planning a meal, buying produce, or growing product, and then cooking for the family can encourage them to try new food items as they have a sense of pride and its fun.
If you do have any concerns or questions regarding your child’s eating, please do not hesitate to contact the teams at your chid nursery. Your Health visitor will also be able to support you. There are lots of helpful websites that can help with meal ideas please see below:
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