My Child is a Fussy Eater – Help Me Gently Encourage Healthier Eating Habits

Healthy eating in toddlers and babies

I am the ultimate fussy eater. I grew up with mild eating problems which turned into bigger problems when I left home. I was determined to help my children enjoy healthy food, as this would contribute to my aim of them being happy. What is going on behind the mind of a fussy eater? What can you do to encourage healthy eating from a young age? How can you help your child eat healthier rather than just wanting junk? I answer these questions in this blog post in the hope it helps children grow up without the eating habits I personally have. As they say, it takes one to know one – my fussiness gives me the best insight to help prevent a fussy eating child.

What is Going on in the Mind of a Fussy Eater?

As a child I remember having such strong feelings against fruit and meat. I did not like the smell or texture, plus it looked and felt yuk. I still feel that way now. I guess you could say I have a phobia of touching fruit or meat, no matter eating it. I never shook the fears I had associated with fruit at such a young age. What were those fears? I can associate a level of fear with every single bodily sense we have – sight, taste, smell, touch and sound. I wrote the following details on each fear to help parents understand that a phobia of fruit, or certain foods, may not be as simple as an intentional refusal for something just because it is disliked. Having empathy with a fear may help you in tackling it with your child together.

Taste

I simply do not get enjoyment out of the flavours that fruit offer, and I don’t like sweets for this reason either.

Touch

Trying fruit is too difficult for me, not just because of not liking the taste but because of the texture in my mouth or hands. The worry that it will squirt with juice when I touch it or chew it. That little bits of all I can describe as skin-like things could get stuck in my teeth. That it might feel a bit hairy, e.g. oranges look a bit hairy so I will not even try one as my imagination does not make me feel that will be nice.

Sight

I do have aversion to looking at fruit, as it brings up anxiety that I will be asked (or emotionally forced) to eat it. I think the sight of fruit also goes ugly quite quickly which makes me think of death and some sort of organisms growing or about to grow on the fruit. Bananas for example start looking bruised quite quickly.

Smell

Some fruits have a very strong smell. Oranges or tangerines are examples which give me the creeps. It makes me feel like I’m being forced to eat that fruit just by being sat near someone who is, just because the scent is so strong.

Sound

I find the sound of fruit being peeled or eaten by somebody else disgusting. It always sounds kind of slurpy and juicy when people eat it, and that repulses me. I am not sure why.

If you notice the above causes of fear, none of them involve not being aware that fruit is good for me and will make me healthier. When parents repeatedly say “give it a try, it’s good for you…” or “you need 5 portions a day to be healthy…”, it simply does not hit the nail on the head. Whilst your children may need some lessons on the health benefits of eating fruits, most likely there are other reasons that they are refusing to eat fruit.

Other reasons may include negative language used about the child’s eating, so rather than allowing me to try it when I’m ready, I am constantly hearing ‘she won’t eat that… she is the fussiest eater…’ My Mum used to tell everyone that I started being fussy when I turned diabetic at the age of 2. That it was a power and attention thing as I had control over forcing my parents to give me other foods to prevent my blood sugar going low. Perhaps there was an element of that, I cannot confirm as I do not remember from that age, but my gut tells me that was unlikely. I feel the main reasons I would not try fruits was because of being too scared to. I expect being scared to taste fruit may be because I was not exposed to fruit much, if at all, when little.

Understanding Why Fear of Food Exists

Firstly and most importantly, research has found picky eating to be a normal developmental phase in toddlers. Like most phases in toddlerhood gentle parenting helps find the solution. By setting the healthy eating example, being empathetic to the child’s feelings about food, and allowing them to try new foods without pressure. I view it that I would rather waste 1,000 packs of blueberries allowing my kids to touch, taste and be used to being around them, than to offer it a handful of times and conclude that they will never like it. This can be costly if the food gets thrown on the floor or spat out, but the health benefits to your child having the freedom to grow to love different foods at their own pace will be immense.

What Can You Do to Encourage Healthy Eating – From First Stages of Weaning

I ensured my children had a variety of flavours in their food from weaning, mainly using Ella’s Kitchen pouches because they are organic and sounded like delicious mixtures that I probably would not be able to recreate with my fear of touching fruit! Many of these flavours were well loved. I was mindful that some of them look like they offer variety when in fact they mostly consist of a few restricted fruits e.g. apple or banana. The ingredients list on the back of the pouches states exactly what % of each fruit or vegetable is in the pouch, and the name on the front can be deceptive. I would mix up those predominant foods on the ingredients list each week, trying to increase the variety of all the different fruits and vegetables. I felt offering these different flavours and tastes would at least help my children not be scared of the flavours of fruits.

As very young babies, say 1 year old, I encouraged my babies to hold different fruits and vegetables. No pressure to try them or eat them, and often they were not in an edible form for a toddler yet, e.g. just a big raw carrot. I felt this would help them not have the phobia to touch fruit like I do. Touching lots of fruits and vegetables goes hand in hand with not fearing the sight of these foods.

It is also useful to look at pictures or books which talk positively about the fruits and vegetables. Any book my kids pick up which has a fruit or vegetable I will challenge my babies to guess what it is. I sound very positive about those foods, not giving any option for negative associations to be formed. Remember that at this young age, children will not know how most things taste yet, they are still experiencing most things as if they are new. Let their first opinions of healthy foods be positive.

What Can You Do to Encourage Healthy Eating – Older Toddlers and Children

Encouraging the child while going to the local shop to choose a fruit or vegetable of their choice. My daughter chose a carrot one week and took it to the local park. A few other Mums asked what was with her carrying a Rudolph nose everywhere. I said she chose it in the shop and they laughed that their 2 year old’s would have chosen sweets. That is typical of our society, but my daughter was thrilled to carry these vegetables or fruits on her walk from the shop. I had not allowed sweets to be part of her diet yet, so did not have to face the same battle.

On that note about the general society, be mindful of what you watch on TV. When the twins were first born, I resorted to a lot of BBC for kids. I was not aware of the World Health Organisation recommendation for no television for 1 year olds. Unfortunately we watched TV during that early phase a lot as I felt that was better for my toddler as I was alone with 3 babies, on pretty much a permanent basis, from when the twins were just a few days old. Wow, watch the programs your kid watches! Seriously. Some of those shows have wonderfully healthy foods and the characters spitting them out saying yuk. My toddler started spitting food out and saying yuk, having never done this before. The link between us starting to watch TV and her behaviour changing was too much for it to be a coincidence…

If your child does seem to struggle with trying solid fruits or spitting them out, and if TV is not the cause, their fear may stem from the taste and texture of the fruit. Do not make any fuss about your toddler not finishing or liking a fruit or vegetable. Tastebuds change quickly, especially in the first few years of life. If you try to force, bribe or threaten your child to eat it, it can make the pressure too much and can backfire to outright refusal. Bringing pressure or stress about ‘why can’t you eat this’ to the table will not help your child feel excited to try new foods. Instead, be gentle with them, and view it as a longer term goal for them to eat these foods than a goal for right now.

Gentle Parenting Your Way to Healthier Eating

Words are powerful. If a child hears “don’t bother, she won’t eat carrots, she hates them…”, then she will continue in that mindset that she hates them. Gentle parenting knows the importance of using positive words. Authors like Dan Siegel and “The Yes Brain Child” comes in handy for helping dealing with a fussy eater.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is the-yes-brain-child-siegel.jpg
Ebook available to buy here

Interestingly, I remember trying fruit and meat on a couple of occasions when I was a young child. One was at my childhood best friend’s house. Her Mum was lovely and one evening after dinner she made a huge drama with all the children at their dinner table. In my face, after being in her own children’s faces with an excited “do you want pudding too Julia?” I obviously responded like all the other kids and said “yeah!!!”. I only had junk-type puddings at mine, usually chocolate based, angel delight or ice cream, which was what I was imagining when I replied with an excited yes. She then served up, still with a big smiley face and happy voice, strawberries and cream. She knew for a fact that I did not eat fruit. She succeeded in getting me to willingly eat some fruit. I ate the whole bowl of strawberries, not particularly enjoying it, but I did feel a sort of pressure to eat them as everyone else was enjoying it so much.

I can compare that story of my friend’s Mum using the power of connections to get me to eat fruit with some memories of my upbringing at home. I remember my Mum leaving some fruit in a bowl on the dinner table and saying I was not allowed to leave the table until I had finished it. Everybody else left the dinner table. I was sat there alone feeling so anxious and scared. After a really long time, I snuck out the back door and put the food in the outside bin. When my Mum came in she gave lots of praise that I had actually eaten it, that I felt bad and just carried on the lie.

To summarise the important differences in the styles of connecting and how it did / didn’t influence my decision to eat the food.

Reasons when I did eat healthy foodsReasons when I did not eat healthy foods
Using my peers and the power of connection to make me nod and say yes. See my previous blog post about connecting to your children.Putting pressure on or negativity to try to influence my decision, which raised counterwill in me and forced me to not try.
Positive language used. This sets you up for success. Saying things like “Ohhh is it delicious?” and having a positive vibe around the preparation of the food.Negative language used frequently, even as an adult. “She won’t eat that…”, even if I’ve just said I have started eating a new food.
No force emotionally or physically. Just setting me up for success through a variety of other factors.Force through harsh words or by threatening me e.g. ‘you can’t leave the table unless you eat it.’
Empathy when I did not like the taste. My best friend’s Mum got me to try an apple once too, which I spat out. She then tried it and said “oh yes, I agree that’s not a nice one, some are and some aren’t, sorry love. Well done for trying it though!” so it made feel better about not liking it.Lack of empathy about the reasons I did not like something. Using emotional pressure, e.g. “come on it’s nice, don’t be silly / I give up” sort of attitude.

Starting Points for Introducing New Foods to Children

In light of how common disliking new healthy foods is, creating activities which involve the foods they don’t like but with no pressure to eat them can be helpful in getting the child familiar with the food. They will feel safe holding the food if they know the goal is not to eat it. Several example activities involving handling food without a pressure to eat include:

  • Using the food for painting – using a carrot as a silly paintbrush.
  • Dancing fruits and vegetables – the dancing banana who loves to be eaten.
  • Juggling lighter foods in the garden – strawberries for example.
  • Ask them if they want to choose 5 vegetables to go in the soup you’re making tonight. They do not have to eat this soup, but if they could just choose the vegetables as Mummy fancies a change and thought child would be the best one to help. Then involve them in the washing, or cutting, or some sort of preparation to help them feel intrigued. Then as you’re eating, tell them what a great choice of vegetables they made and what a good recipe this is (assuming it is nice). This may make them want to try it if a bit is left on the table next to them while you nip to the toilet…
  • Smaller chunks in foods they already love. If they love a pasta dish, mixing in tiny pieces of the new food can help start them getting used to it slowly. You don’t even have to tell them what it is if they ask before trying – challenge them to tell you what they think it is. Alternatively after they ate it all, ask them if they liked it. If they say yes, you can really gently reel off the list of what was in it this time, and then mention the new ingredient.
  • Try changing up the texture and taste. Involving toddlers in preparing smoothies can make fruits exciting to children. They often love the loud volumes they can create by pushing the ‘on’ button on the blender. The non-offensive texture and new flavours may create a new like in your child. In the longer term these will help form positive associations with fruit and give them great skills to have healthy snacks.

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