Fussy and difficult eating behaviours are common, as children develop their diet and eating behaviour. Between 10 – 25% of children develop more difficult eating behaviours and up to 40 to 70% of children with chronic medical problems and disabilities have eating and nutrition problems.

The impact of fussy and difficult eating behaviours are the potential to develop essential nutrients and vitamin deficiencies. Prolonged fussy and difficult eating can cause erratic sleeping patterns, difficulty concentrating, malnutrition, poor gut health, disruptive moods / behaviours and fluctuating weight.

cauliflower and quinoa bake

There are many reasons why a child develops fussy and difficult eating behaviours. Some children are sensory sensitive, and may refuse foods based on their smell, taste, colour or texture. For others, the problem may be more physical, relating to a difficulty chewing or swallowing. Commonly a child may react to a food due a food allergy or food intolerance. It is helpful to understand the underlying cause of the eating behaviour before starting to ‘hide vegetables in bolognese sauce’!

White food preference and obsession is becoming more common but it rarely means only bread and pasta. Having the support from a fussy eater specialist nutritionist to identify and trial options, is beneficial for the child and carer.

This cauliflower and quinoa bake recipe has 4 white ingredients. Cauliflower, quinoa, onion and zucchini are all very nourishing for your fussy eater and still good for the whole family!

Parents influence eating behaviours

Parents’ can influence a child’s fussy and difficult eating behaviours positively and negatively. Which is why I focus on mentoring the parents, as well as the children, in nutrition mentoring consultations.

The family eating environment influences the development of eating behaviours, coaxing threatening and forcing children to eat can cause refusal behaviours, as can using food as a reward. Creating a supportive environment around meals and food generally will have more positive outcomes.

The four feeding styles following are based on four thoroughly studied parent feeding styles; influenced by cultural norms, parental concern, and child characteristics. The preferred style is responsive, the remaining three – controlling, indulgent, and neglectful will generally have negative consequences.

Responsive feeders

Responsive feeders follow the concept of a division of responsibility; the parent determines where, when, and what the child will eat. The child determines how much to eat. Responsive feeders guide eating instead of controlling it. They set limits, model appropriate eating, talk positively about food, and respond to feeding signals. A responsive feeder arranges the schedule to encourage appetite or by rewarding the achievement of goals but does not resort to unpleasant coercive techniques. This feeding style is more likely to result in children eating more fruits and vegetables and less “junk food”. Resulting in a lower risk of becoming overweight.

Controlling feeders

Controlling feeders are common; approximately half of all mothers and even more fathers are controlling. Often ignoring the child’s hunger signals and using force, punishment, or inappropriate rewards to coerce the child to eat. These practices may initially appear effective, but become counterproductive, resulting in poor balance of energy intake, consumption of fewer fruits and vegetables, and a greater risk of under or overweight.

Indulgent feeders

Indulgent feeders cater to the child. They tend to give whatever and whenever food the child demands, often preparing special or multiple meals. They wants  to meet the child’s every need, but by doing so ignore the child’s hunger signals and sets no limits. The result is lower consumption of foods that contain essential nutrients and higher consumption of foods that increase the risk of becoming overweight and undernourished.

Neglectful feeders

Neglectful feeders abandon the responsibility and or fail to offer food or set limits. When providing food they may avoid eye contact and appear detached. Older toddlers are often left to fend for themselves. Neglectful parents ignore both the child’s hunger signals and other emotional and physical needs. They may have their own emotional and mental health issues, or other conditions that make it difficult for them to feed their child effectively. Neglect may be severe enough to result in failure to thrive; a greater risk of obesity is associated with these feeding practices.

My Top Tips to positively influence eating behaviours:

  1. To overcome fussy and difficult eating behaviours the most influential factor according to the research requires repeated exposure to food, without pressure.
  2. Avoid distractions during mealtimes (television, electronic, phones, etc).
  3. It is important for parents to be role models for good eating behaviours, cooking and eating together is recommended.
  4. Maintain a pleasant neutral attitude throughout meal.
  5. Don’t expect your kids to eat a big meal if they are not hungry, quality of nutrient dense foods is preferable to quantity of less nutrient dense foods.
  6. Keep eating times as routine as possible, most children thrive on routine.
  7. For every food, there is almost always a substitute. If your children currently dislike vegetables, offer more fruit or legumes; if they dislike chewing meat, try mince meat, chicken, or fish.
  8. Don’t give up on foods that are disliked – keep trying to help develop their tastes, even for disliked foods.
  9. Fussy eaters are often slow eaters, who may become stressed if hurried too much. Be patient, allowing enough time e.g. 20 – 30 minutes generally works.
  10. Don’t fill your kids up on drinks (juice, milk, cordial, and even water) just before a meal. Their stomachs will feel full and they will not want to eat.
  11. If your child says they are still hungry after a meal, and you know they have had enough, offer them water first and then wait for 15-20 minutes.
  12. Feed to encourage appetite, 4–6 meals/snacks a day with only water in between.
  13. Systematically introduce new foods, keep offering, even if they reject them at first. They need to see and taste new foods several times (up to 8–15 times), before they become ‘familiar’ and are accepted.
  14. Encourage self-feeding and tolerate age appropriate mess.
  15. The most important Tip is please do not use food as a bribe. Saying things like ‘you can have ice-cream if you eat your vegetables’ makes vegetables the villain and ice-cream a hero. This can cause children to intensify the dislike the food they are being bribed to eat and increase their preferences for the prize food.

These tips will only be effective if your child has an efficient digestive system and does not have food in tolerances. Both poor gut health and food intolerance are more common than ever before. Our ‘western style diet’ of highly processed foods does not promote healthy digestion. If you are struggling with your child’s eating preferences and behaviours I would love to support you to get back on tract. I can be contacted by email on robyn@nourishyourability.com.au or call for a chat on 0417 820 292 or book online