So you’ve lovingly slaved over that lasagne and your little one gobbles it up with a grin. You serve it up again the following week and it’s turned down with a look of disgust. What is going on? It’s quite simple – at this age, your child doesn’t know what they like and don’t like.
Taste Preferences in Young Children are Unstable
Research recently conducted with a group of under 5’s offered them 5 flavours of ice cream and asked them to rate the flavours. The next day they repeated the task and each day they rated the flavours differently.
Don’t believe them when they say “they don’t like it”.
The same research conducted with a group of over 5’s showed a more stable palate in terms of their likes and dislikes and they rated the flavours the same both days.
Other research was conducted on parents this time to see if they could spot which foods their children would and wouldn’t try. They were wrong! Despite spending mealtimes with their children and hearing repeated refusals or requests for food, most parents were wrong when it came to spotting which foods their little ones would try. Children who had refused broccoli were happy to try it, proving that children are fickle when it comes to claiming their likes and dislikes. If they won’t try it or don’t like it today, it doesn’t mean they won’t like it or try it tomorrow.
Many parents are wrong when they think they know which foods their kids will try!
I Like v I’m Willing To Eat
There’s a difference between what your child “likes” and what they’re willing to eat. Your child may like sausages and fish fingers but that doesn’t mean they’re not willing to eat mackerel or broccoli. There is no diet or eating regime for a fussy eater. If you continue to feed a narrow palate you will reinforce a narrow palate. A flower needs to be regularly turned to the sunlight else it grows bent and crooked in one direction - the same applies to the palate. It needs to stimulated and encouraged to grow in many directions else it will be stunted along a single path.
If you continue to feed a narrow palate you will reinforce a narrow palate.
Get Used To Rejection
You’ve cooked up a fabulous meal and your little one has refused it. Get over it! Take rejection in your stride and don’t make a big deal out of it – you could find yourself entering a battle of wills and at the end of the day short of prising your child’s mouth open and forcing the food in (not what we’d recommend) you can’t force them to eat it.
Don’t Offer An Alternative
Now this is the hard one since many parents hate the thought of their child going hungry and serve up maybe just a bowl of yogurt or something just to make sure they don’t go hungry. Don’t do it! You are in a great position here to teach action-consequence and by recognising not “trying” the food on offer will mean no food until the next mealtime is a common and often necessary situation to find yourself in. Yes they will get hungry but that is a developmental leap – recognising that “not eating = hungry”.
Now with all this in mind, don’t go serving up tripe and then saying “that’s all there is”. Your child is entitled to make choices so ensure there are multiple foods available on the plate, such as risotto, broccoli and green beans so your child can retain control over choosing to eat one thing or not the other. It’s a bit like “everyone’s a winner”. You’re happy because the green beans have been eaten and your child’s happy because she’s only eaten the green beans and left everything else. Sound petty? Yes – but we’re dealing with children whose brains are still developing so pettiness is going to be around for a long time yet.
Make at least 3 different foods available on each plate of food.
It can be good to talk to your child before serving the meal about what to have. We are big fans of A-B choices in all aspects of parenting so your child gets used to choosing from 2 things. Asking before dinner “would you like peas or sweetcorn” means you’re ensuring they’re getting veggies and your child chooses “peas” means they have had some say in the food on offer. Because they have chosen it they are far more likely to try it. Repeat this A-B throughout all aspects of your life. “Would you like to walk or take the buggy?”; “Shall we go on the slide or the swing first?”; Shall we read book A or book B?”. Your child will get used to making these decisions so when mealtime comes along it will be natural to choose from a choice of food.
Offer A-B choices in all aspects of parenting.
Always make sure there is something on the plate your child can choose to eat – don’t go serving up a plateful of new foods or foods you know they won’t like. If they will eat peas then maybe pop a small serving on the plate so they can choose that if they like.
At the end of the day, feeding the “right” foods to a fussy eater is never going to work since fussy eating isn’t about the food. Once you get to the root of the real problem and deal with it in the right way – whether that be control, attention, neophobia or other area then the fussy eating will sort itself out.
Read more about how to manage common fussy eating difficulties in our latest book Worry-free Weaning.
Dr Anna Walton is a chartered counselling psychologist and Felicity Bertin is a registered paediatric osteopath. They work together supporting families with children who have fussy eating habits.
Busick, D. B., J. Brooks, S. Pernecky, R. Dawson, and J. Petzoldt. 2008. “Parent Food Purchases as a Measure of Exposure and Preschool-Aged Children's Willingness to Identify and Taste Fruit and Vegetables.” Appetite 51: 468-73.
Coulthard, H. and J. Blissett. 2009. “Fruit and Vegetable Consumption in Children and Their Mothers. Moderating Effects of Child Sensory Sensitivity.” Appetite 52: 410-15.
Dovey, T. M., P. A. Staples, G. E. Leigh, and J. C. G. Halford. 2008. “Food Neophobia and 'Picky/Fussy' Eating in Children: a Review.” Appetite 50: 181-93.
Liem, D. G., L. Zandstra, and A. Thomas. 2010. “Prediction of Children's Flavour Preferences. Effect of Age and Stability in Reported Preferences.” Appetite 55: 69-75.