Fussy eating – why does it happen?

Has your toddler refused to eat certain foods? Child psychologist, Dr Richard Woolfson, explores the reasons why your toddler refuses to eat

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The chances are, your toddler will go through a phase of fussy eating, typically when she’s about 2 (although it can start earlier).

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She thinks, ‘No way am I going to eat that,’ and either refuses to touch the food in front of her or just sits there picking at her plate with a terribly dejected expression on her face. You can’t force your growing child to munch what you give her.

You can beg, encourage and plead, you can even shout and threaten – but she’ll only eat when she wants to eat. That’s why confrontation with your fussy eater won’t work. Co-operation is much more effective.

What your child thinks:

  • ‘The cutlery is too difficult to hold.’ If the knife, fork or spoon is too large for her to grip, she won’t even bother trying to tackle the food itself. Give her attractive, child-sized cutlery that fits easily into her small hands.
  • ‘The seat isn’t comfy.’ Just as you like to be well-positioned when eating, your child also wants to feel at ease. She should be seated at the proper height and within easy reach of her food.
  • ‘There’s too much on my plate.’ Putting a large amount out all at once could kill her appetite. It’s better to give her a small amount to eat on a large plate.
  • ‘I’m frightened I’ll burn my mouth.’ Although adults prefer their meals to be piping hot, young children like warm food. The sight of steam rising from her plate might make her think that she’ll burn herself.
  • ‘I don’t like the taste.’ At this age, a child usually prefers bland-tasting dishes – plain food is more popular than spicy meals. Use seasoning sparingly when you’re preparing your child’s meals.
  • ‘It makes me feel sick.’ Food that’s too dry or too greasy can stick to her upper palate, making her sick. Both texture and appearance have to be right for her or she’ll be unable to eat her food.

What your child wants: Attention!   

Your reaction to your child’s finicky eating habits can inadvertently make matters worse. If she sees you getting agitated by her reluctance (or refusal) to eat, then she soon thinks, ‘This is a great way to get mum’s attention.’ Therefore, the more you react strongly to her eating habits, the more you can unwittingly encourage them.

Most young children would rather have negative attention than no attention at all. This is another reason for taking a relaxed, non-confrontational approach when your child goes through a phase of fussy eating. If you have time, sit with her while she eats, and 
chat to her. Your positive attention helps the eating experience become more enjoyable from her point of view.

Top tips:

    • Take your child with you when you buy her cutlery and crockery – This helps her feel more connected with mealtime.
    • Involve her in some of the food preparation – For instance, she might pass you the seasoning or pour in a drop of milk.
    • Have family meals – Eating is usually more enjoyable when all members of the family sit down together, including your fussy eater.
    • Don’t offer sweets as a reward for eating a meal – she’ll only think, ‘That food must be really horrible if mum needs to give me chocolate to persuade me to eat it!’
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