I thought I would tackle a subject very close to my own heart today and perhaps give a view on fussy eating that is not often sought after or listened to. Now all my friends and family are well aware I have particular food requirements, (sounds so much better than a picky/fussy eater), and is often the subject of laughter and leg pulling, especially with old school friends when we meet up for meals and they realise I haven't changed! I have always been like this, and have the feeling always will. I have learnt over the years to accept this part of me, and although not always easy, and it does effect choices in my life, I have no plans to start hypnotherapy or have psychotherapy to help me work out what went wrong in my early eating days to try and alleviate my 'problem', as so many see it. Is this a problem for me? The easy and quick answer is no. Is this a problem for others? Unfortunately, sometimes yes. It has always intrigued me why I have these eating 'issues' and for that reason have looked into what may make a child a fussy eater.
All humans are predisposed to prefer sweet foods. This innate ability was to ensure when we were foraging for food back in the caveman days, we would less likely eat bitter or sour flavours which could signal poison and so a method for survival. This instinct is still present in babies and so it takes a while to condition baby humans to adapt to stronger and less sweet tastes.
We must also remember that we all vary in the amount of taste buds we have, usually around 10,000, and also how are brain reacts to these tastes. Smell also plays a huge part. There are a band of people known as 'supertasters', roughly 20% of the population who experience intense flavours and smells. Even genetics play a role in tastes. There are many articles on the internet that explain the science in greater details, which until about 5 years ago I had never considered. I always thought I was stubborn and my eating was simply a psychological issue. Let me be clear, I have no idea if I am a 'supertaster', but it came as a relief that maybe there is a fully fledged reason for why I find eating certain foods more difficult than others. Now with all this information at my fingertips how can I help parents with fussy eaters?
Believe it or not, parents and other people's reactions can actually make a fussy eater worse. I want you to think of something you do not like, maybe it's heights, water, rollercoasters, clowns etc. (I'm sure there is even a food or two out there you choose not to eat). If you don't like rollercoasters, you probably will avoid going on one. Now think of your children with a food they do not like. Forcing a child to eat it, or telling them they are being silly etc is not going to help the issue. You are not accepting their feeling at that time and does not help your relationship. You need to accept the child's feeling, but at the same time not begin a pattern of avoiding the foods they dislike, serving them a different meal to what you are having.
Experiments have also shown that by children having experience of a food, whether it is simply by it being on their plate rather than it being eaten, then they will at some point feel brave enough to try it. So, for example, every Sunday you have a roast and a little of every vegetable is on your child's plate - carrots, broccoli and cabbage. Your child never eats the vegetables, but will eat the roast chicken and potatoes. However, on the Tuesday, your child is cooking at school with all her/his class. They are making a stir fry and is being encouraged to try and eat it. Although she/he may not like carrots, she/he will more than likely try the carrots first before peppers etc because she/he is more familiar with them, they are less scary.
Many parents say to me that a child simply refuses to eat if they are not given what they like. I completely understand where the child is coming from. I at times would rather miss out on lunch if there is nothing I like. However, I'll let you in on a secret. I would never starve myself. If I was in need of food, then of course I would try a little of something, even if I could not stomach a lot. I'll always choose white bread over brown, but if I had no choice then I would eat brown bread. I don't like onion in a pasty, but I have been known to eat one if I have to.
For someone who has no issue with food it is hard to understand, but please have patience and compassion. At the same time parents, don't let your little dears get away with simply eating chicken nuggets and chips. If you need to, alter your recipes to make the meals more palatable for your child. I will eat cottage pie, but I need to know what's in it and how it is cooked. I eat a stew, but only with certain vegetables in. When I was pregnant with my first child, many people told me I needed to sort my eating out, but certain levels in my blood were really good, that my midwife said I must eat a great balanced diet!! If only she knew. While pregnant with my second child, I thought I really do need to try more. I remember ordering salmon, and eating a few mouthfuls and not being able to go any further. At least I tried!
In conclusion, take a deep breath parents and try not to let the issue of fussy eating become an issue. Also, try not to let the opinion of others on your child become a worry. Again if your child gets invited to another child's house for tea, rather than worry, explain to the other parent that your child may not eat a lot. It really doesn't matter. As long as they have their manners and try something on the plate, then do not worry. Also, do not think that you need to give them another meal when they get home. Ask about what they had to eat. Did they try it? Give lots of positive reinforcement for them dealing with a tricky situation. If they are still hungry offer them a piece of fruit when they get home.
Many children in our country do not ever experience what true hunger is and most children will always relent and eat something before they ever get to a point of making themselves ill. This does not always apply to every child, so if you are ever really worried about your child then do seek medical advice. However, do at times stay strong, reward the attempts at trying new foods, (even if it is just a little bit), try to stay calm and remember that we are all different and new things can be scary, even new foods.