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Fussy Eating - Is Biology to Blame?

Posted by admin Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Cooking the same thing every night for your little one? Serving up a different dish for choosy family members each night? Battling to get the menu changed from fish fingers and sausages? Well before you blame yourself, take a breath and give yourself a break.
Life can be very difficult when your child’s a fussy eater. You might find yourself doing things for a quiet life, like cooking different versions (or different dishes) for everyone, choosing where you eat out based on whether they serve chips, simply because otherwise every meal is going to be such a battle that it’ll ruin all the fun anyway.
Many families share a common problem – not only do their children reject foods they seemed to love before, but they also refuse to try new foods. If you’re one of those parents who feel that sharing the fruits of your labour in the kitchen with your family is one of life’s real pleasures, then having a child who won’t take part can feel heartbreaking.
It can be easy to blame yourself, but before you do that, stop! While considering what you might be doing that’s helpful or unhelpful is, of course, a useful and necessary exercise, blaming yourself is pointless. 

Blaming is Pointless 

Blaming is a pretty useless exercise in general – it keeps you focused on how you perceive you’ve messed up – and don’t forget it’s all just your perception, none of it is fact! Blaming yourself keeps you feeling bad and being stuck with those feelings stops you moving on. So instead, take an honest look at what you might be doing that’s unhelpful, remember you’re doing your best and try a different option. 

The Developmental Element

Refusing food is thought to be partly developmental. Many children will accept a wide range of foods until they are around 2 years old, when things can change very suddenly. Some researchers think this is an evolutionary response, suggesting that toddlers’ taste buds can change when they start walking. Back in caveman times, eating any old berry they came across as they started exploring their environment for themselves could have been very dangerous for a toddler. So relax, your child’s sudden refusal of foods they used to love (or so you thought) could all be a natural part of their development.

Suspicion is Normal

Suspicion of new foods is also healthy part of a child’s development. Child nutrition experts think that it might serve a similar function to their tastes suddenly changing, as described above. Having an innate suspicion of new foods may also have stopped toddlers eating something poisonous as an evolutionary safeguard. So although you may not think that penne look very different to fusilli, your toddler might! You might think: “But I’m their mum, why don’t they trust me that it’s ok?” And the answer is that they will, eventually. But the fact that they don’t take your word for it straight away may indicate just how strong our human innate survival instincts are.

A Genetic Element?

Would you believe it, a study by researchers at UCL found that 78% of neophobia (fear of new foods) is genetic, and 22% environmental! Now, while it’s important to bear in mind that research findings don’t equal ‘fact’, it’s worth remembering that there may well be more to your child’s fussy eating than meets the eye. The idea that your child may be partly genetically programmed to be averse to trying new foods does make sense – survival is much more likely if the tools we need are biologically programmed into us rather than having to rely on them being completely taught by our parents, right?

That's all well and good, but what can I do about it? 

If things change or your toddler won’t accept new foods, remember that it’s normal. Keep offering foods and try not to get frustrated - your child will only discover their true food likes and dislikes by trying things over and over and over again.
Don’t fall into the trap of cooking the same old thing - your child won’t be learning to trust new foods if you do this.
Don’t hide food (e.g. vegetables) in sauces – if you get found out, then even worse, they’ll learn not to trust you
Do pay attention to the foods they do like and try serving those familar food in a different way. Variety doesn't have to mean something compeltely new. Read more in our post about using Yogurt to help a fussy eater: How Yogurt Can Help a Fussy Eater.
So if you worry that your child will never eat anything but beige food, our advice try and relax and remember "I don't like it" actually means "I haven't tried it enough times yet". You’re not a failure as a parent (or a cook!). Don’t give yourself a hard time. Even though each week with a fussy eater might feel like a year, try to be patient, both with your child and even more importantly, with yourself.