The truth is that around 50% of toddlers can be classified as fussy eaters, and around 80% of the families I see in my clinic and workshops are struggling to increase variety in their children’s diet.
Effort, time and expense spent lovingly preparing healthy and nutritious meals, only to have a little one (or two) turn up their nose, is understandably demoralising – for everyone.
In a previous post, I discuss how fussy eating (which tends to start between the ages of 2-6) is thankfully a phase that most little ones grow out of.
I also go into detail on how and what we choose to feed our children are key factors in how their long-term eating habits will develop. The strategies we implement to deal with any challenges are also crucial.
There are a small percentage of children however, who will require professional intervention as a result of physiological or psychological reasons for their ongoing food refusal. These can include issues such as oral motor delays, sensory issues, gastrointestinal disturbances or anxiety-food related disorders.
These children may fall into the category of what is called “problem feeders”, and the sooner that their issues are identified and treated, the more willing they will be to try new foods.
In such instances, it’s recommended to seek expert support from dieticians, nutritionists, speech therapists, occupational therapists and/or paediatricians.
Listen: We speak to an expert about raising a child who will eat anything, on our podcast for new parents. (Post continues after audio.)
What are the key differences between a Fussy Eater and a Problem Feeder?
Typically, a Fussy Eater…
- Eats a decreased range of foods but will eat at least 30 types of foods.
- Will eat the same peanut butter or Vegemite sandwich every day for months, then go off it and refuse to eat it- however a few weeks later they will happily eat it again.
- Can tolerate new foods on their plate, touch new foods, may even (after lots of encouragement) taste a new food even if it’s not swallowed.
- Will eat foods from all the different food texture groups (e.g. crunchy, soft, hard).
- During mealtimes, will be happy to sit with family as long as they are eating a food/meal they like. This will most likely be different to the rest of the family’s meal but may include some components of the family meal (e.g. will eat corn or a meatball with no sauce).
- With lots of repetition, encouragement and positive reinforcement from parents may slowly add new foods to their limited diet.
Typically, a Problem Feeder…
- Eats less than 20 types of foods
- Will fixate on a particular food every day for months on end (like a peanut butter or Vegemite sandwich), then tire of it and refuse to eat it again, even months later.
- Will have a meltdown if a new food is placed on their plate; some children will refuse to sit at the table if certain foods are present – even if it’s only on another family member’s plate.
- Will refuse to taste new food no matter how much encouragement they receive.
- Will completely omit certain textures from their diet.
- Will refuse to eat all components of the family’s meal and demand a completely different meal to the family the majority of the time.
I always try to manage family expectations around what relative “success” looks like at mealtimes. For one child, increasing from one to two vegetables per day is a huge success and for another child, eating a meatball in sauce would be considered a big achievement.
Ideally, it’s important to work towards including a wide range of nutritious foods such as vegetables, slow-release carbohydrates, iron-rich protein and healthy fats into both fussy eater and problem feeder’s diets.
Here are 10 popular family recipes that have an extensive track record for winning over fussy little eaters.
1. Mac n Cheese.
Gluten-free, Egg-free, Nut-free and Vegetarian friendly (recipe on page 59 of my book).
Macaroni cheese is often a meal that even the fussiest of little ones will eat. Through a few simple nutritious swaps and including quality ingredients like preservative-free cheese, whole grain pasta, vegetables and chia seeds, turns this dinner staple into a nutritious family meal – great for lunchboxes too.
2. Chicken Nuggets with Cauliflower.
Gluten-free and Dairy-free (recipe on page 117 of my book).