Q. I have a six-year-old son who is becoming more and more fussy when it comes to meal times. His diet is quite limited in terms of meals. He tends to eat only one thing at a time, so for example would eat sausages or chicken nuggets but does not eat anything that would go with it such as any type of veg or potatoes. He won’t eat potatoes in any form, chipped, roasted, boiled or mashed. Of the limited amount of food he will eat at the table, he is becoming even fussier. For example, he used to eat beans, but now he says they are too soft; he used to eat pasta with sauce, but now refuses to eat the sauce if it has even the smallest of bits in it.
He is beginning to scrutinise everything we put in front of him. He won’t eat fish (will eat fish fingers), he won’t eat mince, red meat. He takes his cereals dry. Meal times are stressful as he may just sit there and look at his food and, when we insist he does eat, he starts to gag. Invariably, it ends up in a row and tears. I have tried coaxing, rewarding, involving him in the food preparation, involving him in the buying of food and so on. We have family meals and his younger sister eats very well.
A. Concerns about fussy eating or mealtime battles are among the most common questions that are sent to me at The Irish Times. This is not surprising as in surveys up to two- thirds of parents report children not eating or concerns about their child’s nutrition as a problem they encounter in early childhood. So you are definitely not alone.
However, even though it is a common problem, this does not make it any less frustrating or emotive to deal with. Central to our parenting role is feeding our children, so when they appear not to be eating the most healthy options, this is hard to witness. In addition, mealtimes are an important family ritual, and when these are interrupted by a child not participating or rejecting the food that we lovingly prepare, this is hard to take.
In thinking how to respond, the first thing is to put things into perspective – the vast majority of children with fussy eating habits grow up healthily and well. In the long term, fussy eating tends to fade and children change their eating habits at different developmental points (often influenced by peer groups when they start school or become adolescents).
Secondly, it is important to try to understand the source of your child’s resistance to eating. Some children are averse to certain flavours or tastes, but frequently they can be very sensitive to other aspects of food such as the texture, size, consistency and temperature.
This may be the case with your son as he does not like “soft” beans and the “bits” in some food or prefers his cereals “dry”. In addition, if a child has had a bad experience with a certain food, when they gagged or spat it out, this gives them negative associations that make it hard for them to try the food again.
The key to making progress is to start with food that your son likes and then to slowly and gradually expand these out to include new foods, but to only go at your son’s pace. If you think your son has sensory issues around food, then make sure to start with the textures he likes and when you introduce new foods, present it initially with the preferred texture.
One advantage of him being six rather than a toddler is that you can reason with him and get his agreement and co-operation around healthy eating. Sit down with him at a good time and explain how important it is for him to eat nutritiously and how you only encourage him because you love him – you wouldn’t be a good parent if you didn’t.
Listen carefully to his objections and preferences. Make a list of all the foods he knows and categorise them into “those he loves”, “those he thinks are okay” and “those he doesn’t like at the moment”. It can help to adopt an educational approach and even to fit in with what he is learning in school. For example, when his school is discussing the food pyramid, get him to select a couple of foods he likes from each level of the pyramid. Or when he is learning the importance of eating a rainbow of fruit and vegetables for better health, set him the challenge of eating a food from all the colours of the rainbow in one week.
Be extremely patient and positive when you introduce new foods. You might expect him to tolerate only a small portion on his plate, before he smells it or tastes it (without putting it fully in his mouth), etc. Though it is really hard, try to always be encouraging, positive and upbeat. The temptation is to criticise, cajole or even to force a child to eat, but these are counter-productive strategies that can set you back (and can even invoke a gag response in your child). Instead, always focus on what your son is doing right – “You had a taste of that, well done” – or to gently encourage him – “Well done, only one spoon to go”.
Sometimes it is best not to mention the food at all and chat about other things as you eat. As he is six years old, it can be helpful to use rewards with him, for example, if he tries a new food (even one pea) he gets a small treat. The key thing is to get his co-operation rather than be fighting with him. Appreciate how hard it is for him to try new foods and encourage him all the way.
Do seek further help if the problem persists. You could contact a dietitian who has experience with children. There is also plenty of good information on the internet. For example, if you think your son might have some sensory issues around food, have a look at sensory-processing-disorder.com/picky-eaters.html. Though written for children with particular diagnosis, the information is relevant for all parents dealing with picky eaters. Also check out further articles on this site on the subject of fussy eating.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, December 2011. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.