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‘My child doesn’t eat enough’: 8 tips for fussy eating

More often than not, my two and a half year old turns down dinner.
He takes one look at the lovingly prepared – and, I assure you, very tasty – meal, and says, ‘No. Don’t like dinner.’

Even dishes that should be a surefire hit, like pasta or a proper roast, can be spurned. (He only eats the Yorkshire pudding.)

He’s now started refusing even child-friendly food that he used to previously tuck into happily, like fish fingers and mashed potato.

I don’t think he’s losing weight – so he’s obviously getting enough calories at his other meals. But nevertheless, I’m really very worried. My middle child was a fussy eater, yes. But not to this extent.

It’s time to call in the big guns.

It’s not fussiness – it’s neophobia

‘Between the ages of 18 months and six years, children tend to develop something called neophobia, or the fear of the new,’ says Dr Emma Haycraft, a senior lecturer in psychology and a child feeding researcher at Loughborough University.

‘It manifests itself in a suspicion of all new food – and even of food that has previously been eaten.  Your child might also be funny about different foods touching each other on the plate.’

Sound familiar?

Evolutionary behaviour

Dr Haycraft explains that neophobia is an evolutionary tic, dating back to when we were cavemen, and foraging around in the bush. It developed to prevent poisoning in toddlers as they became more mobile, learning to crawl or walk.

child learning to walk

It’s really common – 40 to 50 per cent of parents claim that their child is fussy.

And while for some kids, neophobia lasts for two months, for others it can span a year. ‘We think some children suffer more because they are extra-sensitive to smells, textures and tastes,’ says Dr Haycraft.

Here are her tips on coping with a neophobic child:

1. Keep offering the same foods – it can take 20 times for a food to become more familiar

Stick to a strategy of exposing your child to a range of foods. As annoying as it is to prepare a meal that will be scraped into the bin later, in the long term it can help unravel the mystique of different foods.

‘A lot of parents stop offering items after the third or fourth time, saying, “Oh, Johnny doesn’t like broccoli”,’ says Dr Haycraft. ‘But you shouldn’t stop trying as it can take 20 occasions for a food to be accepted. Instead, serve up the broccoli alongside something that your child likes more. This will help make the unfamiliar food more familiar.’

Try tracking your child’s exposure to particular foods on the website the Child Feeding Guide or associated app, both of which were developed by Dr Haycraft and her team. (The app is available now on iPhone and iPad, and coming soon on Android.)

2. Don’t use food as a reward for good behaviour

A few times a week, I tend to serve my kids a few sweets after dinner. Admission time here: I’ve become so irritated by my toddler son’s complete lack of interest in his dinner that I’ve been telling him he could only have the sweets if he ate some of his meal.

(It didn’t work. He still didn’t eat his dinner.)

And anyway I was wrong apparently – you should never use sweets or another treat as an incentive to eat a main meal.

‘It’s like saying, “If you eat this horrible meal, you can have this delicious pudding,”‘ says Dr Haycraft.

‘I know it goes against all your instincts, but make sure all your children are offered the same treat –  it shows that all food is equal.’

So in the same way, even if your child doesn’t eat any of the main course, offer the usual pudding anyway, for example fruit and yoghurt.

3. Reward your child with praise and applause instead

If your child steps out of their comfort zone to try something new, praise them by clapping, cheering or even using a reward chart. ‘You could say, “If you have a bite of this, you can have a sticker for your chart.” Once they have 10 stickers, your child gets a treat,’ says Dr Haycraft.

4. Relax, man

Don’t make a big deal out of mealtimes. Offer up dinner, making sure there’s something on the plate that’s familiar. Leave it at that. Don’t blackmail, bribe or cajole. And don’t say that your child can’t leave the table until they eat something.

‘Kids will eat until they are full and if they are eating pasta, broccoli and peas, and you say you can’t leave the table until they eat the veg, it may teach your child to override their hunger cues, which is linked to obesity,’ says Dr Haycraft. ‘Don’t pressure a child to eat more than they want to.

5. Make sure your child eats with others

Ensure your neophobic child sees other family members eating the same food  – it shows that it’s not scary. Definitely don’t go off and make something separate for your child if he or she isn’t keen on what’s on the plate.

6. Make food fun

Take the pressure off by letting your child have some fun with food away from mealtimes. So try potato-printing and courgette-printing, for example. In the supermarket, encourage your child to help choose the food and play games, like asking your child to spot three red foods. ‘The more often your child sees a food, the more familiar it will become,’ says Dr Haycraft. Let your child help prepare and cook food with you too.

making homemade mincemeat

7. Double-check snacks and portion sizes

I realised that my toddler was eating too hefty a breakfast (presumably he was making up for his lack of dinner).  I’m now trying to keep portion sizes more in check. Watch out that your little one isn’t drinking too much milk too. The Infant and Toddler Forum offers a guide to portion sizes for children aged between one and four years.

But don’t withhold snacks, says Dr Haycraft. Just keep snacks to one sitting to avoid constant grazing.

8. Keep it in perspective

‘If your child isn’t losing weight and is still eating a selection of foods, there isn’t any cause for concern,’ says Dr Haycraft. ‘Have confidence that your child is getting enough calories and nutrients from the other food they eat.’

I feel much better knowing that it’s not my fault – that he’s genetically programmed to behave like this. And from now on, I’m just going to try and sit this neophobic phase out while offering him lots of tantalising goodies and being utterly calm about it. Well, that’s the plan anyway.

 

Read more:

10 ways to get your child to eat vegetables
My toddler doesn’t eat enough: part 2
Do you have mealtime déjà vu?
Going sugar-free: why I’ve given up sugar


Comments (31)

  • Avatar

    Ruth Alexander-Smith

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    Some great tips, I feel VERY lucky my kids never have been through a fussy stage, although there are things they won’t eat my son roast potatoes, go figure, my daughter – mushrooms.

  • Avatar

    Sonya Cisco

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    My two and a half year old has just hit the same phase, as did his older siblings before him. I find that he has days where he eats loads, and days where he eats far less, so I try to look at his diet over the week. If it helps, my big two went back to being try anything good eaters once they hit about 6!

    • Avatar

      healthiermummy

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      Two and a half year olds can be troublesome, eh? And thank you for telling me about your older two, that does help. Only a few years to wait then!

  • Avatar

    Liska @NewMumOnline

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    Wow this SO makes sense, as Aaron doesn’t like “moles” in his food and will pick them out. His inner caveman is clearly scared of getting poisoned. This is so very informative thank you.
    Liska xx

    • Avatar

      healthiermummy

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      ‘Moles’? That’s so interesting! My son hasn’t given them a name, he just turns it all down. Sigh.

  • Avatar

    Foz

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    My daughter was (and still is) very fussy. It is only now, at 7 years old, that she seems more willing to try different foods.

    Great tips, thanks for sharing

  • Avatar

    Emily (@amummytoo)

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    Good tips. I wrote a similar post a while back and some nutritionists contributed. The overwhelming advice was don’t get stressed about it, just eat as a family and lead by example. Things have improved loads so I guess it worked!

    • Avatar

      healthiermummy

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      I’m so glad it’s got better for you. Looking forward to seeing some improvements here.

  • Avatar

    Michelle

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    Really good tips here. My boy was a fussy eater as a child. He went from enjoying lots of things, to not wanting to eat them. I tore my hair out as a young mum…but he’s 15 now and a strapping lad! He can still be a bit fussy about trying new things, even now, but he can sometimes surprise us all – his favourite on holiday is lobster of all things!

    • Avatar

      healthiermummy

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      Lobster! I’m looking forward to when I see that. Good to hear there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

  • Avatar

    Life With ASD and Me

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    some fab tips! We learnt early on with my eldest being fussy.
    Learnt from our mistakes and now I have a 3 yr old who will eat anything

    • Avatar

      healthiermummy

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      Well done, you. Although my eldest will eat anything and we treated my little boy in exactly the same way, so think neophobia can strike anyway

  • Avatar

    Mel W

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    fabulous tips, it’s such a worry when your child is a fussy eater. We used to make pizzas together and get him to top them with veg and make faces :)

    • Avatar

      healthiermummy

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      Great idea, thanks!

  • Avatar

    Cass@frugalfamily

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    Great post – I would say that the best tip would be not to get stressed over it. Don’t make meal times a drama – my nearly nine year old is just starting to get a bit more adventurous now x x

  • Avatar

    Lori

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    Such a great post thanks for sharing! I’m in the middle of a fussy a phase so this is great timing :) x

  • Avatar

    Jenny

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    My 2 year old is quite fussy so this is really helpful :)

  • Avatar

    suzanne3childrenandit

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    Some great tips here. I remember all of mine going through a funny phase of refusing certain foods and eating very little. I think it’s also got something to do with striking out in independence. I’ve never had one actually refuse everything though, that must be a worry :(

  • Avatar

    Mammasaurus

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    Great tips! We found with Kitty it’s a case of familiarity – she needs to see us all eating something new before trying it herself!

    • Avatar

      healthiermummy

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      Thank you, my little boy is always seeing us munching. Will keep trying!

  • Avatar

    kara

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    Some fab tips – I have two fussy eaters and we are just starting to turn a corner with them, plus I have become a dab hand at hiding vegetables

    • Avatar

      healthiermummy

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      I’m looking forward to turning that corner!

  • Avatar

    clare nicholas

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    Sounds very familiar here – Emmy eats very very little currently

    • Avatar

      healthiermummy

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      Best of luck for you too then. It does seem to be very common.

  • Avatar

    MummyNeverSleeps

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    Ahhhh… So THAT’S what it’s called! My son was a fantastic eater until he got to about 15 months old…. Then he just stopped. Even sandwiches and yoghurt were no goes. Now he’s four he’s just about getting there again, but it was VERY hard work! Some fabulous tips here, thank you :)

    • Avatar

      healthiermummy

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      Thanks for showing me there’s light at the end of the tunnel! My son refused lunch and dinner yesterday. He seems to be surviving on yoghurt and breakfast. Sigh.

  • Avatar

    Fritha Strickland

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    great tips! Wilf can be a very fussy eater sometimes! x

  • Avatar

    Mums do travel

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    My son still has neophobia but not just about food, about everything, and he’s 11. It’s very wearing but your tips are great, thank you.

Comments are closed