Fussy eating and food refusal in childhood usually starts at around 20 months and continues until a child is school age. Such behaviour has evolutionary roots; protecting the prehistoric family’s young from eating potentially poisonous food as they began to move about independently and away from the watchful eye of adults.
A limited diet is quite common among primary aged children, with the situation tending to improve when the child starts secondary school. At this age it is possible to appeal to the child’s thinking brain, in addition to their increasing awareness of social norms.
Most fussy eaters’ diet consists of five to ten accepted foods, usually dry, beige coloured carbohydrates. The preferred food will be very specific: the same brand of biscuit, cereal or bread. (However, they may try different food in different contexts, for example, different types of cereal at a friend’s house.)
- Be sympathetic. Think of something you would be hard pushed to eat even under the threat of torture, to get an understanding of the genuine revulsion that the child feels.
- Do not hide a rejected food in one of the child’s preferred foods. These children will be alert to small changes in the appearance or texture of food, and will simply stop eating the preferred food.
- Do not starve the child in the hope that they will eat. The children can appear to have no sense of appetite, preferring to go hungry rather than eat something that disgusts them.
- Patience is required: give the child time. Most children require a few trial tastes before they start to eat unfamiliar foods. The fussy eater will need to try a food for a longer period of time before it is accepted. They may feel brave and agree to eat a product when out shopping, but then lose courage and refuse when the food is prepared and on the plate in front of them.
- Try to reduce anxiety, both yours and theirs. The situation has nothing to do with parenting. Most fussy eaters have siblings who will consume anything and everything. You will need to have the child’s back and protect them from the comments of well-meaning family and friends. Remember that even restricted diets can supply adequate nutrition, and all you need to do is add vitamins.