The critical lack of support for parents of picky eaters
Picky eating is a polarising issue.
Those parents who have a child that eats well, often view those who have one who does not as “just not doing things well”. There are even whispered comments about lazy, not trying hard enough and letting the child be in charge.
On the other side of the coin, those parents who find themselves in possession of a fussy eater, especially an extremely selective one, spend many, many hours worrying about how they have arrived where they are and doing their utmost to change that.
Working closely with over 100 families with selective eating challenges per annum, has given me a unique insight into what is truly happening within these households.
Contrary to popular opinion, these parents (usually mums) work far harder around food than those that have eating competent children.
It’s way easier to spend 45 minutes lovingly preparing a meal that is then eaten with delight, than it is to wake in the morning and wonder what on earth you can prepare for dinner that will be accepted, and enable your 3, 7, 10 year old to go to bed with something remotely nutritious in the stomach.
Picky eating experts from around the world agree that between 5 and 10 percent of all children, have a picky eating issue so severe, that it will not resolve itself without intervention.
This is mind-boggling numbers of children who truly do struggle to eat. We are not talking here about preferring pizza to stew, in fact, there are many parents who would pop champagne corks if pizza went onto the menu.
We are talking children who find the thought of a new food paralysing.
Selective eating also has considerable negative effects on all members of the family.
The child that struggles to eat often finds social occasions overwhelming. I know of many children unable to go to camp, skipping sleepovers and as they get older, avoiding normal social gatherings – just because of the food.
The parents are weighed down by worry over nutrition, and guilt over not being able to perform what is one of our core roles as a caregiver. Not being able to feed a child comfortably is a stress and frustration that is lived 5 times a day, 7 days per week. It is thought to be the second most stressful issue parents face.
Siblings are often negatively affected. Going out to eat or travel can be restricted by the eating challenges of their brother or sister. They are also often negatively influenced in their own eating competence.
Given what an issue this is, the sheer number of families struggling and the often far reaching ramifications, it would be safe to assume that support services are in place to help children challenged around food.
In fact, it is the opposite. There is very little support available either internationally or within NZ for parents who have children who truly struggle to eat a wide variety of foods. I consistently hear tales of extreme frustration and distress as parent’s concerns are dismissed.
Even those with children who are only able to manage to eat a handful of foods are often unable to find support as their child is ticking boxes in terms of height and weight charts.
As picky eaters are likely to find calorie dense carbohydrates among comfort foods, weight gain is rarely an issue in the primary years.
Parents who are able to obtain a referral to a specialist often find the process long and challenging and upon reaching the end of the line are then told that there is limited funding, or there is no service available in their area.
It is my dream that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear. A large part of this is going to hinge on picky eating being understood and treated as the stressful and life inhibiting challenge that it truly is.
If we have a child that struggles to walk, talk or read we understand that early intervention is critical, it’s important and it’s what’s necessary to support children to function optimally. Eating is no different, and in fact the impact of not having services available can be enormously detrimental to those children and their wider family.
Judith is mum to two boys, a tween and a teen and is the author of Creating Confident Eaters. My dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
I delight in showing parents how to get picky eaters eating in simple, gentle, practical steps that anyone can master. I graduated from Cambridge University and have qualifications in nutrition, parent education and am a trained telephone support worker for ParentHelpline. I am currently working towards qualifying as a psychologist. I would love to understand more of the “why” behind fussy eating and to eventually spearhead research in this area.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/