Parents’ secret sauce in tackling picky eating
Updated: Oct 30
I am not talking about ketchup and the like here (although sauces can have a role to play in helping some fussy eaters – but that is for a different article!).
What I am talking about is parent power – and specifically about the strength of your belief in your ability to influence your child’s behaviour.
How can your beliefs make a difference?
Any parent of a fussy eater would love a magic bullet to make the pickiness go away. I often get asked questions like, “What’s the best thing you can do to stop fussy eating?” or “What’s your top tip for dealing with picky eating?”
And sure, there are tips and tricks aplenty - you may well have tried them yourself. If you did, and they did not work, then there could be a little-known reason for that: you may have low 'relational efficacy' when it comes to your child's eating.
'Relational efficacy’ is a relatively new term. You may have heard of ‘self- efficacy’ – which is how much control or influence you feel you have over what happens to you. ‘Relational efficacy’ is how much influence you believe you have over someone else. In this case, we're talking specifically about how much influence you believe you have over your child when it comes to their eating.
You almost certainly have more influence than you think over your child’s eating
There is a good reason to talk about ‘relational efficacy’ when it comes to picky eating in particular. Research has found that parents of children with healthy food preferences not only have higher-self efficacy, but they also believe in their ability to influence their child’s preferences. These same parents are also more likely to use effective feeding practices.
So to put it simply, if a parent believes they can make a difference to their child’s eating, then there is evidence to suggest that they are better placed to actually make a difference.
Can parents’ beliefs cause fussy eating?
It is unlikely that parents’ beliefs are a significant cause of fussy eating. There is a difference between the initial causes of fussy eating and the reasons for its duration. In terms of the initial trigger, or cause, of your child’s pickiness, it will in most cases have nothing to do with anything you have (or have not) done.
These are some of the most common triggers for fussy eating:
medical issues or pain (especially gastro-intestinal complaints)
sensory sensitivities (which can be hereditary)
a traumatic event (like choking), oral-motor difficulties
Learned behaviours (often from a sibling, but sometimes a parent) and certain parental feeding practices, can sometimes cause picky eating, but like I say, this is relatively uncommon.
It is what parents do next when it comes to dealing with the fussy eating that flows from these trigger events or phases, that can affect your child’s pickiness over time. This happens through a combination of your ‘feeding practices’ and the nature of your ‘feeding relationship’ with your child. And both of those are shaped by how much influence you believe you have over your child’s eating.
Having a child who is a fussy eater can really take the shine off your belief in yourself as a successful parent.
Why don’t all parents believe they can influence their child’s eating?
1. Seeing fussy eating exclusively as a ‘nature’, not a ‘nurture’ issue
It is very easy to feel as though your child’s pickiness is to do with things outside your control – their sensitivities, their personality, their innate preferences. Add to this the possibility that their fussy eating has been going on for some time – maybe many years, even for the majority of your child’s life - and the fussy eating itself can almost seem like one of your child’s personality traits.
Once you think like this, then attempts to use the tips and tricks that experts advocate, can feel doomed to failure. For example, “That just won’t work with my son, he’s too stubborn” or “I have to make plain food because she doesn’t like strong flavours”.
This is not to deny that children have different personality traits or food preferences which might make dealing with fussy eating more or less tricky – of course they do. But by focusing on these as immovable barriers, you may be missing out on the very real opportunities you have to influence and shape your child’s eating.
2. Past negative experiences with trying to change fussy eating
Many of the parents I talk to feel like they have tried everything and nothing works. This feeling has often come from hopping from tactic to tactic, hoping something will work, but never really believing that it will - and not having the confidence to apply a strategy consistently. This creates a vicious circle: I don’t have any influence over this; I’ve tried and nothing works; what works for other parents won’t work for me; I really can’t do anything about this.
But if you are feeling resigned to your child’s fussy eating, I would love to encourage you to start seeing your role in your child’s eating differently.
3. Wider societal health and nutrition pressures
Health and nutrition messages are everywhere, and it has never been easier to feel judged, inadequate or guilty about what your child is (or is not) eating. So as a defence against these horrible feelings, it actually makes perfect sense to put your child’s fussy eating down to factors outside your control. Otherwise, the seemingly logical (but untrue) conclusion that parents could reach, is that they are not good parents.
4. Picky eating myths
Fussy eating myths are almost always unhelpful. If, for instance, you are told that your child will ‘just grow out of it’, you are much more likely to sit back while the picky eating (supposedly) takes it course, rather than being proactive and assertive in your response to this unwelcome development in your child’s eating.
But research shows that two out of every three fussy eaters who were fussy aged two, are still fussy by the time they are 10. This clearly gives lie to the myth that most children grow out of it. And it also shows that most parents of fussy eaters are not getting the help they need to change their child’s relationship with food.
How can parents become more confident in their ability to influence their child’s eating?
In terms of giving advice on social media or in blogs, this can be a tricky area. It is much easier for child feeding experts to talk about feeding practices - or tips and tricks around mealtimes - than it is to talk about parents' beliefs.
But in my experience this can be one of the most transformative aspects of getting help and support when your child's eating is not what you want it to be. Having a child who is a fussy eater can really take the shine off your belief in yourself as a successful parent! So getting that feeling of control and influence back can be a real game changer.
Nurturing your belief in your ability to influence your child’s eating often requires some inner work, some education, and most likely some good support too. Starting to know and feel what success looks like is a powerful motivator that can breed new and continuing successes. And knowing you are on the right track, rather than constantly second-guessing yourself, makes it a lot easier to believe you are doing the right thing and to stick to your guns in the face of challenges from your child.
So if you are feeling resigned to your child’s fussy eating, I would love to encourage you to start seeing your role in your child’s eating differently. If you hear yourself saying – or thinking – things like ‘there’s nothing I can do about this’, or ‘this is just the way my child is’, then please think again. You are unlikely to have been able to control whatever it was that caused your child’s fussy eating in the first place. But you almost certainly have more influence than you think over your child’s eating from here on in – and it is never too late to work on this, get some of that secret sauce, and step into your power.
Sarah Griffith is a fully qualified and insured health coach and children’s eating specialist, who helps parents transform their family's food, and make mealtimes easier and healthier - even if their child is a fussy eater. If you would like to find out more about how she can help you resolve fussy eating and transform your family's mealtimes, just email Sarah or book a free discovery call.
Wolstenholme, H., Kelly, C., Hennessy, M. et al. Childhood fussy/picky eating behaviours: a systematic review and synthesis of qualitative studies. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 17, 2 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-019-0899-x