Tips to tackle fussy eating for the year ahead
This article takes a look at some of the unhelpful perceptions and behaviours us parents can have when it comes to our children’s eating, and offers tips on how to change things for the better.
Many of us feel as though our children’s eating is wrong in some way. We can see our children as fussy eaters (26% of parents); under-eaters (56% of parents), or overeaters (19% of parents). We can worry their nutritional intake is inadequate (25% of parents).
Some of us may have medically diagnosed evidence to support our perceptions of our children’s eating. Then there are greyer areas, where the medical profession can’t and won’t intervene, but where parents feel that their child’s eating isn’t good, and want it to be better.
This is the area where parents come to me for help. And one aspect of the work we do together is to look at any perceptions they have about their child’s eating and whether those perceptions, the feelings behind them and the behaviours they lead to, are serving the parent and child well – or not.
Often, one of the most helpful first steps we can take is to question our own perceptions of our child’s eating, notice the judgements we make, and identify any labels we give our children when it comes to food.
For instance, our view of our child’s eating could be coloured by a specific, difficult incident such as a child struggling to gain weight in the first days and months of life. Or a premature birth, or maybe an illness. Even a second child not taking to food like the first can give rise to them being perceived as fussy by comparison.
Our own relationship with food can also provide fertile ground for labels to grow. If, for instance, you have a history of dieting, or emotional eating, there’s research evidence to suggest these factors could alter the way you perceive your children’s eating. Dieters, for instance are more likely to see their children as overeaters; and emotional eaters are more likely to see emotional eating in their own children.
We all make judgements about our children – and none of them are going to be objective.
But when it comes to our children’s eating, our powers of perception can be particularly inaccurate. And, as the saying goes, labels stick. They can get in the way of us seeing the whole picture and lead to us missing opportunities for change and enjoyment when it comes to our child’s eating, and to us behaving less than helpfully when it comes to feeding our children.
For example, if you think of your child as ‘an under-eater’, pressurising them into eating might seem to make sense. But any pressure - whether positively encouraging eating, or demanding clean plates, or coaxing ‘just one more mouthful’ – has been shown in many different studies to be counter-productive. (I should say here that many ‘parenting experts’ who are untrained in child eating seem to recommend praise for eating. While this might be a successful strategy for encouraging other desirable behaviours in your children, this doesn’t seem to be the case with eating).
Likewise, if you see your child as greedy, or as an overeater, it might feel instinctive to try and restrict their food intake. Again, research has repeatedly shown this strategy to be counterproductive (I’ll be writing more about child weight in future blogs).
And there’s yet further research to suggest that parents who are emotional eaters could have a tendency to use food to help regulate their children’s emotions, or to use what’s known as ‘instrumental feeding practices’, such as using food as a reward, or withholding food as a punishment. Again, these are all behaviours which might undermine a child’s ability to develop a healthy food relationship.
None of this is to say that there's something wrong with having aspirations for your child's eating and for yourself as a parent feeding your child - this is clearly part of our fundamental responsibility as parents. It's to draw attention to the possibility that our thoughts and behaviours might, unhelpfully, be getting in the way of the very things we want to achieve.
The negative feedback loop…
Negative feelings can reinforce negative perceptions, promote counter-productive parental behaviours, and a subsequent deterioration in a child's eating – which reinforces the negative feelings and perceptions, leading to more unhelpful parental behaviours, and so on. We can end up getting increasingly stuck in an unhelpful dynamic with our children.
…and some tips to help break it
Taking a step back and looking at this loop more from the perspective of an observer can be a useful ‘self-coaching’ approach. If you think you’d benefit from this, here are some techniques you might want to try:
1. Gather evidence
This is the kind of evidence that might help you develop a more objective view of your child’s eating:
Where is your child on their growth charts? And are they following up and across their normal curves?
What food does your child like? (tip, don’t just write ‘breakfast cereal’, write every variety of it – and that goes for every type of food e.g. meat, vegetables, even chocolate!).
What foods will your child will eat, but perhaps isn’t so enthusiastic about?
What colour are the fruits and vegetables that your child eats (there are five main groups: red, white/brown, green, yellow/orange, blue/purple)?
Keep a very, very secret food diary of what your child is actually eating over the course of one week. They shouldn’t know you’re doing this, or see it.
Once you’ve done this, you can consider the evidence you’ve gathered as a whole and come to a new assessment of your child’s eating at that moment in time, based on the evidence collected. This can be used to shape whatever action you decide to take next.
2. Take a longer perspective
A child’s eating can vary a great deal. It can change depending on how they’re feeling (physically and emotionally), their growth patterns and developmental stages, as well as what’s going in their family and social life.
Expecting our children to eat consistently at every meal, is likely to fuel unhelpful feelings and perceptions. Considering what they eat over a few days will give a more rounded picture. And seeing your child’s eating as something that can and will change over time helps to undermine the tendency to label them as a certain kind of eater.
3. Notice and manage your feelings at mealtimes
Acknowledging the emotions that mealtimes bring up is a good start. What negative feelings do you have about your child's eating? Do certain behaviours or situations trigger those negative feelings? Checking in with yourself regularly during mealtimes to pick up on those feelings, noticing where you feel them in your body, and then developing a technique to help manage them can be incredibly powerful – both in terms of your own wellbeing and the success of mealtimes.
Simple breathing techniques and mindfulness practices can really help here. Even just pausing for long enough to take one or two deep breaths before can buy you enough space to decide to act differently in that moment.
4. Try new behaviours at mealtimes
If you use any of the unhelpful behaviours described above (using food as a reward or punishment; pressure to eat (either positive or negative); restricting portion size), you might want to consider different approaches.
Trusting your child to know how much they want to eat, repeatedly offering a variety of food, serving regular snacks and meals, and sitting down to eat with your children in a pleasant mealtime atmosphere, are all considered amongst the most helpful behaviours we parents can employ.
Once you've done this, it's up to your child. Any food they don't want, it's best to calmly take away without pressuring them to eat more. When the next snack or meal time comes, you'll be giving them an opportunity to eat again. You won't be leaving them to go hungry, and they can start to learn to trust their own hunger and fullness cues.
Be warned that old habits may die hard. But keep up your awareness of them, know that each meal is a new meal where a new start can be made, and remember that meaningful change usually takes time. If you make the whole of 2021 the year you implement change, family meals in 2022 could look and feel very different.
If you’d like more support to implement any of these approaches, or you have any other questions about your family’s eating that you’d like to discuss, please get in touch - I offer a free initial consultation.
Sarah is a family health coach with a specialism in child feeding. She offers one-on-one and small-group coaching to parents who want to change what their family eats for the better. If you think Sarah might be able to help you with your child's eating, please get in touch and ask for a free initial consultation.
If you’d like to read more about this topic, see Sarah's article on how children’s taste preferences are formed and what parents can do to help make those preferences as wide and varied as possible; and her article on how changing your parenting style could help with fussy eating.
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