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A paediatric nutritionist on the top 10 causes of fussy eating in children.

If you have clicked on this post in the hope that you can find answers on how to ‘fix’ your fussy eater (or eaters), you are not alone. Around 80 per cent of the parents or caregivers I see in my practice are struggling to increase variety in their children’s diets and around half of all toddlers can be classified as fussy eaters.

Thankfully, for most children it is a stage that they will grow out of and they will become more adventurous eventually.

However, the fussy eating period tends to coincide with an important time in a child’s development, so leaving kids to eat a diet of only white bread and pasta for too long isn’t a healthy option. The strategies we implement to deal with their food refusal, along with the food choices we offer them during this stage, can have a huge impact on how willing they are to try new foods and how their eating habits are ultimately shaped.

There are many – often complex – reasons why children evolve into fussy eaters, and common culprits include sensory issues, oral motor delays, digestive complaints, allergies, zinc deficiencies, cravings for sugar or salt, as well as stressful mealtimes.

Below are the main underlying causes that I see in my practice:

1. Introducing sugary foods too early on.

If children are exposed to sugar too early, they will alter their sweet taste receptors. Research has also shown that sugar is highly addictive, and has a drug-like response in many children – the more a child eats it, the more he or she wants to eat it to feel the euphoric feelings associated with sweet foods.

For fussy eaters, it’s really important to balance their blood sugar levels and curb their cravings. (See more about the effects of too much sugar in children and how to manage it in the Reduce Sugar chapter of my book).

2. Introducing too many commercially prepared foods.

As a parent, you can’t compete with processed foods that not only contain sugar and salt (two of the most highly addictive tastes that can interfere with children getting used to natural foods) but also contain flavour enhancers, artificial sweeteners, preservatives and oils which have been cleverly designed by food chemists to create a perfect taste sensation – also known as the ‘bliss factor’.

These foods trick children’s brains into believing that the foods they are eating are satisfying when, in fact, they are nutritionally empty. (See more about avoiding processed foods in the Avoid Nasties chapter of my book).

3. Too much salt in the diet.

Most packaged foods such as pizzas, two-minute noodles and chicken nuggets contain a high amount of refined salt which can lead to salt cravings and a disruption of normal taste sensations. (See tips on how to lower sodium in the Avoid Nasties chapter of my book).

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4. Iron and zinc deficiencies.

Many picky eaters do not have enough protein in their diets and this can lead to anaemia (low iron) and low zinc levels. Low iron and low zinc levels can cause reduced appetites and low zinc especially can cause homemade food to taste bland as this deficiency can interfere with taste receptors.

5. Deficiencies in essential fats.

These are the healthy fats that are required for proper growth and development. Most junk food and packaged food is filled with unhealthy hydrogenated fat such as vegetable oils (canola, sunflower, soy or cottonseed oil) which may cause inflammation in the body. Many kids are deficient in healthy essential fats such as olives, avocado, coconut and fish oil, walnuts, almonds, chia seeds and grass-fed meats, butter and ghee.

salmon healthy food for kids fussy eating
Salmon fish fingers are a great source of essential Omega 3 fatty acids. Image: Supplied.

This imbalance causes them to crave fatty, deep-fried foods. The brain needs these essential fats to function properly. Research has shown that an increase in the beneficial fats in a child’s diet can improve their cognition, their behaviour and have lower mental health disorder rates.

Practitioner-grade fish oil is the number one supplement, along with probiotic-rich food, that I recommend to my clients. It always amazes me how the fussiest of eaters will gobble up a fish gel capsule.

6. Disguising food too early on.

Often we disguise food before our children have had a chance to try it. From the very start we add fruit to veggie purees, sweeten yoghurts or add tomato sauce to spaghetti bolognese in case they don’t eat it. It’s best to remain objective and give kids a chance to experience the true flavour of foods for themselves.

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Work to expand their range to include foods which do not fall into the salty and sweet categories. Little tastebuds are forever changing and, with repetition, what is not eaten today might become a firm favourite in the future.

7. Too much junk food in plain view.

Keep veggies and healthy food in plain view in the fridge or pantry – what the eyes see the tummy wants. Keep the junk food outside of the home and offer it as an occasional treat.

 

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8. Constantly cleaning, worrying and commenting about mess.

How many of you remember your grandmother or mother spitting on a tissue to clean your face or wiping you after each mouthful? I hated it. For some kids, having their mouths cleaned is really uncomfortable.

Accept that there is always going to be an element of mess and it is actually beneficial for babies and toddlers to get messy while eating. Use appropriate language if an older child still struggles to use utensils due to lack of coordination.

9. Forcing a child to eat when they are genuinely not hungry.

It’s OK for a child not to eat their meal as long as you are firm and have consistent instructions. For example; “If you are not hungry, that’s fine, but there will be no other snacks until the next meal.” With older children this can be for the next two hours or for younger children and toddlers it can be anywhere between 45 minutes to one hour. But try to ensure that when their hunger kicks in, they are not replacing their meal with a chocolate muffin.

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Offer the food that was refused earlier or another healthy alternative. If a child refuses to eat their dinner, review what they ate that day and decide whether they might be full. Remind them that there will be no more food or drink (other than water) available until breakfast.

10. Digestive disorders, sensory issues or oral motor delays.

There are a range of digestive and sensory issues such as reflux, constipation or an unusual sensitivity to taste, smell or texture that can interfere with a child’s ability to eat and enjoy their meals. There could also be an oral motor issue or low muscle tone making it difficult to chew or hold down food.

A combination of occupational therapy, speech pathology, nutritional therapy and medical supervision is often required to address these conditions.

Mandy Sacher teaches us how to make her nutritious and delicious 'Bliss Ball Cake Pops'.

Video by MWN

None of this information is meant to overwhelm you or make you feel inadequate when it comes to feeding your child. There are countless reasons why children refuse their food and most of us are busy, time-poor parents trying to do the best we can for our children.

Each family situation is unique and success with mealtimes must be measured accordingly. Some of you may have children who are initially fussy at meal times, but with gentle encouragement and using the practical tips included in all eight steps of my book, may end up eating most of their food. Consider that a great success.

Or perhaps you have a child who refuses to go near a vegetable and will only eat peanut butter sandwiches and store-bought chicken nuggets. For you, the goal will be to gain a clearer understanding of what might be behind your child’s fussiness. If you can make one change to their diet, even a small one, then that is also a great success. This may mean swapping their store-bought nuggets for homemade ones (recipes in the Wholesome Child Book), changing their brand of peanut butter to one that is free from added sugars and switching from white bread to sourdough.

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Always keep in mind that change is a slow process when it comes to children, especially where fussy eating is concerned. It’s important to always respect where you and your child are at and celebrate any changes you are able to make. If you find you are still searching for answers, my workshops offer practical advice on how to get kids to eat more veggies, protein and healthy food choices plus give effective strategies on how to deal with food refusal.

Is your child a fussy eater? Check out Mandy Sacher's new fussy eating workshop here. To learn more about Mandy, please visit the Wholesome Child website. Her book “Wholesome Child: A Complete Nutrition Guide and Cookbook” is available to purchase online and through iTunes, and you can connect with Mandy on Instagram and Facebook.

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