Before becoming a parent, you might have dreamt about family meals around the dinner table together - everyone happily tucking into their food. In reality, for many families this isn’t the case.
Mealtimes can prove tricky if your child won’t eat, leading to a lot of tantrums, stress and worry about whether they’re getting enough food and nutrition. For lots of parents, picky eating in children is an issue that surfaces in the first few years of their child’s life as they develop their taste buds. However, it can also be an issue that affects older children and teenagers, too.
So, how do you get your child to eat a more varied and balanced diet? And how concerned do you need to be if they won’t eat certain foods, like fruit and vegetables? We asked the experts at Bupa to help us decode picking eating and look at some of the common issues that cause it, with helpful tips to try with your child.
Understanding the stages
Babies and toddlers
When it comes to giving your child their first taste of food, it can go several ways. You may have a child who throws most of your homemade food on the floor or one who happily chomps down on anything you put in front of them. However, as stressful as it can be, it’s completely normal for babies and toddlers to refuse to eat or taste food.
My DS hates vegetables (this is a 'new' thing) after eating everything, he now refuses…
Infants have around 30,000 taste buds, with only a third of these remaining by the time we become adults. Picky eating in children can be caused by a dislike of certain tastes or textures, like mushy or lumpy foods, or it could be linked to the child having experienced early feeding difficulties or feeling pressured to eat, which can cause anxiety around food. Thankfully, tastes evolve as children get older and by about the age of five, it becomes more stable.
Instead of stressing about what your child eats in one day, think about what they’ve consumed over the week. Aim to get your child to eat some food from the main food groups including fruit and vegetables, starchy carbohydrates, dairy, protein and fat. As long as they are active and still gaining weight, you do not need to worry.
I feel confident that my children get enough veg 'hidden' in mince dishes by grating and finely chopping the yellow and red bell peppers into lasagnes…
Here are some tips for dealing with a fussy toddler or preschooler:
Stick to a routine or breakfast, lunch and dinner to help them get used to the habit and feel comfortable.
As tastes evolve, try a variety of new foods but keep going back to those that your child did not like before. It may take lots of attempts for them to like the taste.
Eat together. This is a great way for them to learn. Give your child the same food you eat, without the salt.
If your child rejects the food, do not force them to eat it and try not to comment on how much they’ve eaten. Stay calm and positive, praising them whenever they do try a new food, however small.
Don’t let them get too hungry or tired to eat.
Offer small portions so they don’t feel overwhelmed.
Are you a parent who has to make separate meals for your ten-year-old? Do you have a teenager who refuses to eat certain foods? While most kids start as picky eaters from a young age, some can suddenly develop issues with food after the age of five.
This could be due to not liking certain textures or smells, maybe they don’t like saucy foods or foods touching each other. Some older children may only want to eat healthier foods or can develop a fear of trying new foods - or simply not want to branch out from the meals they like.
My DS(8) has been a very fussy eater since he was 16 months old when he started rejecting foods...
In some cases these issues can be linked to conditions like ADHD, Autism and OCD. Whatever the cause, it can be very difficult to get an older child to change their eating habits, especially if they have been a picky eater for a long time. They often have ‘safe foods’ and have accepted that they are picky and don’t want to change.
However, there are some benefits to helping an older child to develop better eating habits - they have better communication and reasoning skills than a baby or toddler so you can talk to them about it. Here are some tips to consider:
Encourage your child to try a new food by putting a very small amount of the food on their plate. Let them touch it before they put it in their mouth.
If they are open to trying new foods, try to do this daily. You could even keep a diary of their tasting sessions so they monitor their progress.
Stop referring to them as a ‘picky eater’, this helps them remove themselves from the label.
If they don’t like a food, remind them that it takes around ten times for your brain to know if it likes or dislikes a food.
As picky eating can often be about control, include them in meal planning decisions and get them involved in the meal prep at dinner time.
Stay positive and take the stress out of mealtimes. This will help them feel less anxious about food.
Advice from the experts at Bupa
To help Mumsnet users combat fussy eating with their children, we asked them to share their questions and concerns about their children’s nutrition and invited Dr. Zoe Williams to answer them. You can watch her full responses below:
When to see the doctor
Even if your child’s diet seems limited, it’s likely they will grow out of it and eventually start eating a wider range of foods. However, if your child is losing weight or seems lethargic and weak, or if you are concerned they may be suffering from an eating disorder, get in touch with Bupa who can provide advice and support.
The healthcare provider offers a range of services, including advice and treatment from experts, such as nutritionists. These are available to everyone, whether you have health insurance or not. The Bupa website also offers lots of information about hundreds of conditions so you can get advice ahead of seeking treatment.
What Mumsnet users recommend
“Monday to Friday, I used to feed them food that she definitely liked, also made it easier if they had friends for playdates etc, earlier than us. Say 5pm. Then when DH and I had our dinner about 7pm, they would join us at the table to chat and they were free to taste our food, help themselves to a portion etc but I didn't have to worry if they didn't like it because they had already had dinner. Weekends, we ate as a family. I would make things that could be served in separate bits so she could have what she wanted. For example, pasta, her sauce in a separate dish to dunk in if she wanted, a little bit of Grated cheese and chopped salad bits on a side plate and she put it together as she wished.” AngelicInnocent
“I really looked at his diet and worked out if it had a balance of carbs, fat and protein and was quite surprised that it did. So I then found the meals that I can make that are acceptable to all of us and cook those. I stopped cooking multiple meals as that seemed to reinforce the behaviour. I also made sure he had a multivitamin, just in case.” weaselwords
“First of all, drop the term 'fussy eater' because it makes it sound as if she's doing this on purpose to piss you off - I can assure you, she isn't. Now drop all confrontation over it, whatsoever. Put everything in serving dishes on the table where possible, everyone can serve themselves. She eats what she eats, she doesn't eat what she doesn't, and IF she tries something new... Say nothing! One of the worst feelings is trying something new, then everyone makes a huge fuss and undermines your fear and anxiety about trying it by going 'seeeee it wasn't so nasty after all' and this actually puts you off trying new things in the future!” WiddlinDiddlin
One of the UK’s leading healthcare specialists, Bupa provides a range of health and care services. These include care homes, retirement and care villages, hospitals, clinics, dentists, and other healthcare-related services. Bupa also offers personal and company health insurance. Bupa offers a wide range of healthcare services which can be accessed with or without our health insurance, as well as providing a wealth of information online covering over 400 conditions to help people get the right advice and support.
About the author
Gemma Wilcock is a freelance writer and copywriter. At Mumsnet, she creates content providing useful parenting advice, information and top products to make life easier – as a mother of two children herself, Gemma knows how important it is to get the right advice.
She loves writing about subjects that will be helpful to the reader – and herself! - including recommending top products and writing about common issues that parents face to help them in their day-to-day life. This includes topics like this one which she knows herself, having her own fussy eaters, can cause lots of stress and worry. So she will always thoroughly research a topic when writing about it on Mumsnet to make sure she shares the best advice.