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The Psychology Behind Your Child's Fussy Eating

Dealing with picky eating as a parent is never fun, so where does it stem from and how can you deal with it?

Amy Packham , Life Writer
Jul 15, 2016

Parents of fussy eaters usually deal with the debacle of dinner time in two ways. They either accept that their child will never eat their greens and move on, or demand they sit at the table until their plate is completely empty.

For us adults, it's easy. If we don't like a certain food, we don't eat it. But for kids who are unable to articulate why they're refusing to put it in their mouths, things are a little harder. Putting yourselves in their shoes is possibly the only way to understand how to effectively deal with food fussiness.

"A good way to get into the mind of a fussy child is to think of a food that you really can't cope with, maybe bananas, mushrooms, shellfish, eggs?" Dr Gillian Harris, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Birmingham tells me. "What is going through your mind - disgust? And if I tried to make you eat your horror food - anxiety and then fear.

"It's not just about being fussy, it's a genuine feeling of panic."

Toddler crying in high chair

Thankfully, parents aren't alone.

"Picky eating is very common," Dr Lee Hudson, consultant paediatrician with expertise in feeding and eating disorders on behalf of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, tells me.

"Most children and young people will change what they are willing or interested in eating through their lives, often in conjunction with periods of growth spurts. The important thing for parents is not to panic as most children who are picky will either be going through a phase, and will still have enough food to grow and develop properly."

It's not just about being fussy, it's a genuine feeling of panic.

In a study in the journal Appetite released in January 2016, out of 120 kids aged three to 11, overall, 39% of children were identified as picky eaters at some point. The study confirmed what psychologists often proclaim: children enter their pickiest phase of life around age two - the "neophobic" stage. This pickiness generally declines by the time they turn six.

But the root cause of fussy eating is not so simple.

"There is evidence that food fussiness is genetically determined to an extent," Dr Harris explains. "It can be an inborn trait, with families who have one child who eats well and one who is fussy, despite the shared environment."

"From day one my youngest daughter has been very fussy with her food," mum Emma Critchley, 37, who blogs at Islandliving365, says about her three-year-old Amelia. "This is the complete opposite to my oldest daughter who was really ready for solids and is happy to try everything.

"She eyes any new foods with a real look of disdain and will push food around her plate before declaring she doesn't like it, without even tasting it. She will declare anything that looks like a vegetable to be disgusting, yet is really good with beige food in general like chicken, sausages and beef."

Emma Conway, blogger at BrummyMummyOf2, also found her two kids (Erin, five, and Ethan, three) had very different approaches to food.

"My eldest was amazing and I was so lucky that she would eat everything and anything," she says. "I presumed that my son was going to be the same. But he just wasn't.

"He was, and still is, far fussier about vegetables than my daughter. He just declares everything that was green 'disgusting!' It can be quite frustrating. I was also really worried that he wasn't getting all the vitamins that he needed. I panicked that he wasn't going to be able to thrive as well as his sister."

Mother feeding child on couch

For parents worrying about 'what they did wrong', the most likely answer is they aren't to blame. Although there was a study by the University of North Carolina in 2013 that found 72% of a child's food avoidance was the result of genes, the group size was small and Dr Hudson believes there isn't currently great evidence for genes that may be associated with picky eating.

Dr Faye Powell, a developmental psychologist at the University of Bedfordshire specialising in children's eating behaviour, thinks food fussiness doesn't have a strong link with biology.

"Genetics play a small part and could make you more predisposed, but it's an individual's differences and their experiences of food that will trigger picky eating," she says. "Children's taste preferences start in the utero, so even when a child is in the embryonic phrase, the more variety a mother has during pregnancy, the more they are likely to accept those foods when they're born. The same is with breast milk, flavours such as garlic and vanilla can be tasted through that."

While biology and early exposure to food do play a small part, psychologists and doctors I spoke to agree that child fussiness is largely down to innate psychological differences between kids.

Children who have 'heightened sensory sensitivity' are much more likely to be fussy eaters.

"Children who have 'heightened sensory sensitivity' are much more likely to be fussy eaters," Dr Powell says. "These children are sensitive to different sensory aversions and textures - it can be rather overwhelming. Kids with tactile defensiveness, where they have high oral sensitivity, will be fearful of and unaccepting of foods that are different, crunchy for example."

Dr Harris agrees: "Sensory hypersensitive children - to anything from touch, smell and taste - are less likely to accept food that has a difficult texture or strong smell. The texture they feel in the mouth is important - they are more likely to accept smooth fatty food (yoghurts), melt-in-the-mouth food (chocolate and soft crisps), bite and dissolve (soft biscuits) or dry carbohydrates (usually beige brown in colour, incidentally).

African American girl looking at healthy and unhealthy food
"So a typical diet of a very fussy child is all seemingly 'junk' food - but unfortunately 'junk' food is easier to eat."

This rings true for Helen Wallen, 33, blogger at Just A Normal Mummy, whose four-year-old daughter is fussy.

"She was very against trying new things and mainly heads for anything 'beige'. With cheese on," she says. "She could happily feast on chips, pizza and chicken dippers until she turned into some kind of human bread-crumb-coated-pizza-chip.

"I get every excuse under the sun... from 'it will make me sick' to 'I can't try it because it's made my arms stop working' to just plain 'NO' followed by hysterical tears. I often find dinner time one of the most frustrating and stressful parts of the day."

Because hypersensitivity plays such an important role in the psychology of a fussy eater, children with autism are more prone to being picky - "But this doesn't mean that all fussy children are autistic," adds Dr Harris.

Within Dr Powell's research, she noted further personality traits that are positively correlated with kids being picky.

"If a child has an emotional temperament they are likely to be fussy with eating and similarly, children who are shy are more likely to be wary about new foods and pick at them," she says. "In contrast, a child who is impulsive will be bolder and more open to trying these foods."

Understanding why children reject food is also down to how they look.

Shot of an unimpressed-looking little boy sitting in front of a plate of vegetableshttp://

"We managed to get my daughter to eat broccoli only because of how they look," Critchley tells me. "We call them midget trees - he likes that and then will happily eat them."

And this isn't a coincidence. Dr Powell says innately, children are fussier about foods because of how it may look, such as toast being burned. "As they grow older, food fussiness may be because they are associating that food with something they find 'disgusting'," she says. "If they see worms in the mud, they may associate them looking like spaghetti.

"This shows it is their cognitive development influencing food fussiness which is one of the reasons it peaks aged two - before this, they have no cognitive function."

Although there is no quick fix to fussy eating, there are strategies parents can use to gradually expand their child's diet. It just takes a bit of time.

"There are still vegetables that my son won't touch but I focus on those that he will," Conway says. "I make sure I have these readily available and really praise him when he gives new things a go."

Critchley also deals with picky eating by giving her daughter something she does like on her plate, and asking her to try everything else at least once.

"Remaining calm is also helpful," she adds. "I reward clear plates with lots of praise and also take her to the shops and encourage her to choose her food."

Rewards, or giving children an "incentive", is a great strategy Dr Jacqueline Blissett, a reader in childhood eating behaviour at the University of Birmingham says.

"Any physical reward should never be food-based," she adds. "Sticker rewards just for trying new things and tasting them can be really effective. If they even attempt to try something rather than ignore it, they should be rewarded."

The key thing to bear in mind when encouraging your child to eat something is to not put any pressure on them.

A cute little baby sitting in a highchair eating solid food

"All research into food behaviour points to putting pressure on children to eat having a negative impact," Dr Blissett says. "For children who are fussy, 'repeated exposure', where you offer the food repeatedly without the pressure to eat it, is really important. Over time, that child will typically begin to accept the food."

All research into food behaviour points to putting pressure on children to eat having a negative impact on them.

Dr Powell agrees, adding: "A lot of it is about social learning and familiarity and what we know is food that is more familiar is more likely to be accepted.

"A child should aim to try something 10-15 times, without the pressure to eat it.

"They may accept it on their plate to begin with, the next step could be touching it and the next just bringing it up to their lips but each time they are getting more used to that food."

A child should aim to try something 10-15 times, without the pressure to eat it.

This is something Critchley has found to be successful: "As a parent it can be tiring," she says. "You have to be very patient, expect mealtimes to take an inordinately long time and just remind yourself that it isn't a battle."

The most important strategy for children however, as advised by Dr Powell and Dr Blissett, is through "modelling" also known as the example that you set to your children at dinner time.

"Watching other people and learning through modelling other people's behaviour is so important," Dr Blissett says. "In all of our studies, we've shown if your child is fussy, the most effective way of getting them to try something new is if you're eating the same thing and modelling it enthusiastically.

"If you're expecting them to eat broccoli but you're not eating it, it will be a lot harder to follow through."

And in Dr Powell's research, dynamic conversation while you're eating such as: "Mmm these peas taste delicious!" does work.

Steph Molloy, 36, says she uses these tactics on her two kids, who frequently turn their nose up at protein foods like eggs, cheese, fish or meat.

"I will say: 'I bet you didn't know that tuna pasta has special super powers in it? It helps superheroes save the world and gives you energy to play!' Or I'll use reverse psychology and say 'Is that mine (talking about the food on the plate)? I'm going to eat it!" Which then turns into a game."

The final - and most extreme - strategy parents can take to reduce food fussiness is through "sensory exposure". This is where a child engages with food, without the purpose of eating it. They should touch and play with it in a "messy play" set-up.

Toddler playing with tomatoes in the kitchen.

"This may be with cooked pasta or yoghurt of vegetables, but in a very relaxed and non-anxious environment," Dr Blissett says. "They will get used to the texture of things without the pressure - it gives them longer-term exposure at looking at it and sniffing it."

For many parents, mums and dads will be thankful to know, they found food fussiness really does decline as their kids grow up.

"We tried every technique in the book to get my fussy eater to try new things but nothing worked," says Claire Kirby, mum to Harry, six, and Oliver, two, and parenting blogger at Life, Love and Dirty Dishes. "Then Harry started school and we took advantage of the free school dinners.

"Whether it was seeing his peers eat things, or having the choice between two meals each day, it worked. He now happily tries new things and has a lunchbox once a week on the days that he genuinely doesn't like what's on the school menu."

He now happily tries new things. It worked.

Conway had a similar experience: "When my son went to nursery there was a definite shift in his eating patterns. As he was with lots of other children his age that were all eating their meals he would eat foods that he wouldn't dream of eating here at home."

Dr Blissett says the more familiar a food comes, and as children develop, the more likely it will be accepted and their tastebuds will become accustomed to it.

"With age, we lose sensory capacity and foods will be tasted less intensively," she says. "This is one factor reducing a child's pickiness but a lot of it is about children becoming aware of what everyone else is doing around them.

"By age six, they tend to start imitating their peers more readily, they are less anxious about what will happen if they eat food they don't like and they're more likely going to accept new foods."

With age, we lose sensory capacity and foods will be tasted less intensively. This is one factor reducing a child's pickiness.

Food fussiness only becomes a medical issue when it affects growth and development.

"This is when they should think of it as a concern," Dr Powell says. "A parent should seek help from a paediatrician or GP if they feel they're not managing to eat all the core food groups. The formal term for this is 'feeding disorders' or 'Avoidant Restrictive Eating Disorder'."

Kids at the extreme end of the school suffer from what scientists call "food neophobia" - the reluctance to eat, or even sample, new foods."

Children stuck in the neophobic stage are not just being fussy," Natalie Morris, lead therapist at Integrated Therapy Solutions' feeding clinic, explains. "Feelings of fear and the need to control are significant. When the brain is in this heightened state of anxiety, adrenaline is released and this suppresses the appetite, making the child even less likely to eat.

"Often the child is not thinking, they are just reacting. Feeding difficulties are a highly emotional and complex issue."

Giving advice to parents who are deflated about their child's food choices, Dr Powell says don't be too quick to give your son or daughter a label.

"Kids have different preferences," she adds. "There are so many foods to try so don't fixate on one and try it again later.

"You just want them to have variety, it doesn't have to be a battleground. Take each day as it comes."
Writer - Amy Packham