Sorry, but the solution for fussy eaters is never fast or easy

Kinderling News & Features

My daughter became picky with her food about the same time as her cousin, which is to say, around three years of age.

Having witnessed my niece agree to only eat peanut butter on toast and nothing else, I thought this was fairly normal behaviour.

But three years on, and my niece has a much wider variety of foods in her life. And I am still worrying about how little my girl consumes.

I worry for a number of reasons. I know she’s iron deficient. She complains about feeling sick a lot, and I wonder how this kind of attitude will affect her when she’s a teenager.

It has come time to tackle this fussy eating thing head on.

Fussy eating in older children isn’t the same as toddlers

Dr Jen Cohen is a nutritionist and dietician who also goes by the moniker of The Fussy Eating Doctor.

 She says that fussy eating can peak around two or three years of age, but by the time they’re five or six, it’s less common.

“Once they're still fussy at five and six, we actually have to look at what else is going on because it's likely to have developed a little bit more than that usual 'fussy eating'. If they're still fussy at five, six, seven years of age, then we are concerned that the fussy eating is going to continue as they get older.”

Jen says that parents are often told their child will grow out of their fussy eating, but if they haven’t by between five and seven years of age, it’s unlikely they will grow out of it without some help.

What exactly is “fussy eating”?

I’ve spoken to cookbook authors and nutritionists who talk about ‘hiding’ veggies in pasta sauce. These people clearly don’t understand my version of a fussy eater! My little lady won’t go near pasta sauce. White pasta: yes. Sauce: no way, Jose! So, what is the definition of fussy eating?

According to Jen, there is no definitive definition of fussy eating.

“Kids who eat less than 20 foods and kids who refuse whole food groups [like meat] is what we normally call fussy.”

 Listen to Dr Jen Cohen on Kinderling Conversation:

What is fussy eating in older children?

Toddlers can become fussy when they’re pushing boundaries, which is developmentally appropriate. When children are very small, their taste buds can also be changing.

But by the time they have reached the age of five or six, Jen says these factors are no longer in play.

“Fussy eating over time can turn into something called a 'food aversion' or a 'food phobia'. In essence, a child is scared of new foods. You put new food on their plate and they have a meltdown. Then you need to be looking at experts who do what we call 'systematic desensitisation'.”

Jen explains systematic desensitisation using her phobia of spiders:

“If you put a spider in front of me right now, I would freak out and leave. That is not how to get me over my phobia of spiders. You do something called systematic desensitisation. You start with stuffed animals and move up to that.”

What not to do with an older fussy eater

Susan Marden is a Senior Speech Pathologist at One to One Children’s Therapy, and works with fussy eaters up to the age of 18.

She says there are some mistakes parents make that are easy to avoid.

The biggest mistake is pressuring kids, or negotiating with them. Another problem is offering a different choice when the child rejects food. The parent decides what choices are on the table, and that’s it.

 And while I’ve been told several times to hide the veggies, Jen says this is not a good idea.

“If they see that you've hidden something in there and they work it out, that trust is gone. And the thing about eating and fussy eating is you need to bring trust back into the meal. Doing things like hiding vegetables is never going to work.”

Unfortunately for older fussy eaters, the solution is never going to be fast and easy

As you can imagine, systematic desensitisation is not a quick process.

Susan says it’s about making very small changes that aren’t too different to what they normally eat.

“Vary the types of pastas. Don’t get stuck on one kind. Put one quarter of a teaspoon of the tomato sauce on the side of the pasta, so they get used to pasta sauce. Sauces and dips are a great thing to try. If your child likes cheese on their pizza, then put some cheese on their broccoli. Every little change helps!”

Susan also says it’s good to involve your child in shopping and cooking to expose them to different foods.

And while all this is happening, you may be thinking: "But they’re still not getting the nutrition they need!" Susan says parents need to stop worrying about that for the time being.

“It is not the nutritional value of these changes in the beginning, it is the ability to tolerate change. Nutritional improvements come later. If your child has medical concerns, then broadening food choices is different and specialists should be consulted.”

Dr Jen Cohen will be speaking at the Babyology Tackling The Toddler Years Workshop in Sydney. It’s happening on Sunday September 9 at The Establishment Ballroom and tickets are just $49 including lunch. Visit the Babyology website for more info.