5 picky eating myths to look out for
When parents tell me how their children’s fussy eating makes them feel, they often qualify what they say with phrases like, ‘…but they’re a great kid’, or ‘I love them to bits, but...’ And that sums up the guilt and shame that is often part and parcel of how you can feel when your child is a fussy eater.
This is one of the main reasons why I do my job. As a mum myself, I know all too well how many opportunities there are to feel guilty or inadequate about being a parent. And as a children’s feeding specialist, I know that your child’s eating does not have to be one of those opportunities.
It is also the reason why I want to stop the spread of misinformation about fussy eating. In my experience, one of the main factors preventing parents from getting help with their children’s eating soon enough, is because of the unhelpful myths out there. These myths are often given out as well-meaning advice. But most of it is bad advice, and so if you have tried it and failed, you can feel as though you are a bad parent, or that your child is a hopeless case – or both.
If you’ve tried these tactics and they don’t work, that’s because, well, they don’t work!
Here is some myth-busting from me to help clear up some of that misinformation and to help set you on a path towards taking an evidence-based, best practice approach to your child’s fussy eating:
1. You need to be stricter
This is a big one. So many people see fussy eating as ‘just bad behaviour’ and as a result see firmer discipline, or even punishment as the answer.
And whilst it is extremely important to have strong boundaries and structures around food and eating, this is not what most people mean when they give you this advice. Often they are talking about tactics like, pressure to eat - including staying at the table until the food is finished, or letting a child go hungry until they eat what you want them to eat, or using punishments for not eating.
If you’ve tried these tactics and they don’t work, that’s because, well, they don’t work! You might get some short-term results, and now and again there might be behavioural stuff going on that does respond to this, but if your child is genuinely struggling with fussy eating, these tactics will either never work, or might only work occasionally. And besides which, they are unpleasant for both the parent and the child, and if they are used consistently, they are unlikely to support a child to eat well and to develop a happy, healthy relationship with food in the longer term.
‘Strictness’ in some people’s eyes, may also mean adopting an authoritarian parenting style. A kind of ‘do as I say because I tell you or else’ type approach. However, research has shown that strictness does not tend to produce good results when it comes to fussy eating. Instead, adopting a more assertive approach can lead to better outcomes.
2. You need to be less strict
Again, it depends what we’re really talking about here. If you are indeed using an authoritarian approach and using some of those ‘strict’ feeding behaviours I mentioned above, then a change of tack is likely to help. However, if the advice-giver here is trying to get you to ‘cater’ to your child’s preferences in an exclusive way – i.e. they are telling you to give your child only things that you know your child already likes – this is, generally speaking, not good advice.
By catering to your child’s preferences so closely, it can create confusing boundaries around food in respect of who makes the decisions about what food to serve (which is the responsibility of the adult). It also reduces a child’s exposure to new foods and can contribute to limits on the variety of foods eaten and even a reduction in the variety they eat over time.
Including one of your child’s preferred foods in and amongst other foods that you or the rest of the family is eating is a good idea. But only and always offering a child their preferred foods and nothing else, is not.
3. They’ll grow out of it
I addressed this in last month’s blog, and just to reiterate, this is a totally unhelpful myth.
Research shows that amongst children who did not get professional support, only 36% grew out of their picky eating. That leaves 64% of fussy eaters who continued to be fussy eaters (this research looked at children between the ages of 3 and 11). And for those at the more extreme end, the research shows that their pickiness is likely to get worse.
And the longer you wait, the longer you are spending using potentially unhelpful strategies, and the more pronounced your child’s preferences can become, and the more time, food and emotional energy you are likely to be wasting on this issue. You are also missing out on time enjoying feeding your child and eating with them.
If this one myth alone could be done away with, and parents sought help sooner rather than later, so much suffering for parents and children alike could be avoided.
This increases the risk that the problem will continue, and even worsen.
4. You just haven’t found the food they like (aka ‘try this recipe all picky eaters adore!’)
How demoralising to be told that there is a food or a recipe your picky eater will love, only to find out that they don’t. And why would they? We are all different, and fussy eaters are no exception.
Certainly there may be some foods that a proportion of fussy eaters are likely to find less challenging, given certain generalisations we could make about tastes and textures. But even then, plenty of fussy eaters are likely to be excluded.
The best way forward will be tailored to your own child’s existing preferences and comfort zone. Once you know very specifically and in detail what that is, and you have the right environment in place, the key is then to nudge them ever so gently, just out of that zone, little by little, by strategically and deliberately building on what they already eat.
Trust me, there is no magic food or recipe that fixes fussy eating.
5. If they're growing fine, then you don’t need to worry about it
If your child is growing well, that is fantastic and you obviously have no reason to worry about their growth. But presumably it is your child's eating that is concerning you. It is likely their nutrition, their enjoyment of food, your own enjoyment of eating with them, their social eating, your time and energy spent trying to accommodate them, etc., that you are worried about.
If your child’s eating is affecting your quality of life, or theirs, then having your concerns dismissed is not okay. While it is reassuring that your child is growing as they should – and this is something that it is very important to get checked – you want so much more for them than simply to grow. And I don’t think that is unreasonable – or unachievable. And just like with the ‘they’ll-grow-out-of-it’ myth, this one also encourages parents not to seek help for their child’s eating, increasing the risk that the problem will continue, and even worsen.
You don’t have to rely on myths like these. And if you have, and you are feeling disheartened, then that is entirely understandable – and you are certainly not alone. Evidenced-based techniques do exist when it comes to helping with fussy eating – they are just not widely understood or known about. If you want to find out more about, take a look at some of my blogs, or feel free to get in touch and ask me to explain more about it.
If you’d like to read more about this topic, see Sarah's article on tips to tackle fussy eating or on how changing your parenting style could help with fussy eating.
Toomey, K. Picky Eaters vs. PFD vs. ARFID: Differential Diagnosis Decision Tree. Paper given to the 8th International PDF Conference, Online 29-30 April 2021