Struggle and shame faced by parents of picky eaters
Catherine Hubbard 16:00, Jul 08 2022
A few weeks ago I received a random call from Catherine, a Stuff reporter putting together an article discussing the challenges and shame faced by parents of fussy eaters and wanting to check a few things.
We ended up talking for quite a while and so the article is filled with Confident Eater-isms!! It’s not quite the way I’d have written it, but I wanted to share as there are some points that are valid for many parents.
I have also edited this version of the article, adding some additional thoughts in itallics. If you would like to read it as published, there is a link at the bottom of the blog.
Picky eaters have parents scratching their heads over what to put on the dinner table.
Back in the day, many of the older generation will tell you, we ate what we were given. Nowadays, it’s all too common for parents to be catering to the tastes of fussy kids.
I frequently have this discussion as many people of my generation and older try to say “in my day”. My response is that I have spoken to 100’s of parents and many admit to have been fussy as a child – and often VERY fussy. There are also many who have told me about some horrific tactics used to get them to eat (usually meaning there are certain foods that they have an extremely negative memory about).
Or trauma they still feel around certain aspects of food. Also, as you will see below, if there were no fussy eaters previously, where have all these picky adults come from?
It’s easy to judge, but the statistics around childhood eating issues suggest that it’s a common problem for families.
United States figures show that 26% of Americans adults identify as picky eaters, feeding advisor Judith Yeabsley says.
“The statistics are not good. There are an enormous number of children with eating challenges, like an enormous number, way, way more than people will expect.”
Currently feeding experts, she says, are saying somewhere in the region of five to 10% of children have eating issues so severe that they will not grow out of them without intervention.
There are frightening numbers of children who are not “I prefer nuggets to broccoli” they are well past that. They have a challenged approach to food and feeding and can be extremely selective, really anxious and super uncomfortable around new foods especially.
Knowledge and expertise can be thin on the ground.
A University of Auckland study published last year showed that Kiwi GPs had very little awareness of selective eating.
“They thought it was enormously stressful, but that it was under-recognised as something that was stressful for parents, and they were asking for more information,” Yeabsley said.
“Then they were also saying they have nowhere to refer people to.”
So how exactly do you combat the problem of selective eating?
Firstly, forcing kids to eat food that they hate is not the answer.
“If you were, to think of yourself as an adult, coming to the table, there’s nothing there that you feel you can eat, there’s nothing there you like, you’re not going to come to the table happily,” Yeabsley explains.
“So it’s important that we have food on the table that our child is going to be able to eat.”
For instance, if your child doesn’t eat lasagne, has never eaten lasagne, and finds lasagne and integrated foods really, really challenging, “they’re not going to come to the family meal table and eat that lasagne, because it’s outside their comfort zone”.
What you could do, was provide something simpler like pasta, then you could “build on that and work towards the lasagne”.
Yeabsley likens exposure to food to literacy.
“If we think about reading, how many years do you read to a child before they read a word back to you? Four, five years? When we read to them, we do it consistently, we do it with love, we do it with care, and we believe that the more we read to them, the better they’re going to be reading long term.
“If we think about a carrot in the same way, we can’t serve the carrot 20 times, our child doesn’t eat it and then we go, ‘oh, well, they obviously don’t like carrots’.
Grocery shopping for picky eaters can be tricky and expensive.
“Because again, it’s a long-term exposure, getting comfortable without food, getting to the point where they are able to eat that food.
“And that can take a long time.”
It’s a method Yeabsley describes as “rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat”.
But for some children with challenges around food, who have sensory sensitivities, are on the spectrum, or have food anxiety, “just serving the carrot over and over again is probably not going to be enough to tip over into that eating sort of realm”.
In those instances, parents needed to learn to enable and support their children to be more comfortable around a particular food.
“If they’re not able to even touch it, the chances are, they’re not going to be putting it into their mouth happily.”
Yeabsley says that in her experience, parents know when something is wrong.
While pickiness was developmentally normal for toddlers, if you had a child who had reached five and was still on a very limited diet or was not eating from all the food groups, or if they were dropping foods that they previously ate, then Yeabsley said you could “pretty much guarantee there’s something going on that could do with some support”.
A tough love approach of making children finish their plate was not the answer.
“If you are forcing your child to eat a piece of broccoli, does that give them a love of food? If it doesn’t, how are we helping them?,” Yeabsley asks.
Forcing a child to eat broccoli, for example, may be counterproductive.
“And that’s not to say, we let the kids run crazy and eat whatever they want to. That’s definitely not what I’m suggesting. But if my child is unable to eat, lasagne, am I going to try and force them to eat the lasagne? No.
“In the same way, if they’re scared of going off the high diving board, I’m going to figure out ways I can scaffold their progress. So they become more comfortable going up the ladder going along the platform and then jumping off. I’m not going to take them to the top and toss them off.”
Many parents live in hope that their child will grow out of selective eating and they may do so.
However, Yeabsley says, that if that takes three years, five years or 10 years, “how much stress does that put upon the parent, other siblings and the child themselves?”.
The issue is one shrouded in secrecy and shame for parents and caregivers.
“Up until the age of 10, parents often hide it, because they don’t want to admit that their child has got a problem.
“After 10, children keep it hidden, because they don’t want anyone to know. It’s embarrassing. It’s not seen in the same way as other childhood challenges like not being able to read or not being able to walk or not being able to talk, we see eating as a behavioural [problem], either the parents have messed up or there’s something wrong with the child.”
Aside from root causes, such as sensory or food sensitivities, or reflux, anxiety could be an issue at play.
“It might be that they’re just generally anxious, and they have few things that they can control. Food is one thing they can control. So anxiety gets channelled through that.” Parents then sometimes react in ways that can be counterproductive without realising.
Yeabsley’s advice, is that you have to be the boss.
“If you’re not in charge, then if your child is making food decisions it’s not going to go well. You can’t make changes if you’re not in charge, so you need to get yourself in charge.”
But she emphasises that it’s not about “draconian measures” but loving boundaries instead.
You can link to the article here: https://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/wellbeing/parenting/129115486/struggle-and-shame-faced-by-parents-of-picky-eaters
If this has brought up some questions, please feel free to ask me directly!
Judith, MA Cantab, is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.
She is also mum to two boys and the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. Her dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/