What do parents of fussy eaters say? – Part one:
This time last year I sent out a 10-question survey to parents of fussy eaters to find out what was happening for them across a range of picky eating issues.
The answers I received were not a surprise. I speak to parents every day, so the data was not unexpected. However, it was really quite emotional seeing multiple responses put together.
I wanted to share the results with you. I know that having a picky eater can feel like a very personal challenge. It can also be isolating. For children, social occasions can become difficult to navigate. But similarly, parents may find dinners out, visits to friends or relatives and holidays a nightmare.
It’s also easy to believe you’re the only one going through these challenges. As there is frequently social stigma attached to children’s refusal to eat variety, parents often don’t want to share their trials.
This means that families frequently assume their child is unusual and that most parents don’t have the same challenges, when in fact, that’s not the case. The survey should make that very clear!
As it was distributed to parents who felt their child was ‘fussy’ and in general, people are more likely to fill in a survey if it is something that is an issue, the parents who did complete the form are probably those who have children who are more food challenged.
However, I believe it does clearly show how much of a problem picky eating is and also the effects on not just the child but the whole family.
Parents of fussy eaters have their say
Question 1 – “On a scale of 1 to 10, (with 10 being the most), how fussy is your child?”
There were no parents who answered 1-2 and only one who said 3. The majority responded between 7 and 10, with more answering 8 than anything else.
Parent perception is that their child is extremely fussy.
It’s important that – as a society – we recognize this as so often eating challenges are played down, explained away as phases, and not taken seriously. There is also a big difference between children who prefer nuggets to broccoli and those who are really struggling to eat nutrient dense food.
Question 2 – “How do you feel about your child’s eating?”
Frustrated – 73%
Worried – 52%
Defeated – 41%
Stressed – 38%
Guilty – 36%
Parents were able to give more than one answer, and I feel this gives a good overall picture of how they feel about the selective eating.
Frustrated is something that is easy to imagine as not being able to just serve family food makes life far more difficult, as does having to constantly think in order to cater to everyone.
Worried. We are often concerned on a few levels when we have a child who doesn’t eat. Worried they are not eating enough nutrient dense foods, or not enough food. Concerned that not eating widely is socially isolating and worried for them long-term.
Defeated. It’s challenging to maintain a positive outlook and believe that things will get better when we have a child who hasn’t been eating well for a long time and nothing we do seems to help.
Giving up sounds really negative and lazy, but it’s usually the opposite. Coming to the realization that we are not able to change the situation and often that trying is making things worse is not necessarily a bad thing.
Taking pressure off ourselves and our children can be essential. However, having the tools that mean we can continue supporting a child but without pressuring them is the perfect compromise. This is absolutely possible!
Stressed. When a child doesn’t well it is stressful!
Guilty. As food is a necessity, we can’t just shelve it for a while when it gets difficult like we would other childhood skills. We have to feed, and our child has to eat. When this goes wrong, we can feel like we’re failing in a core area.
I think societal understandings has a lot to answer for.
Eating is the most physiologically complex action our body performs. There are many areas where things can go wrong, especially when we consider eating is emotional, physical, and mental too.
Guilt when things go awry is a function of how we position feeding issues differently to reading challenges, for example.
Question 3 – “Which of these social challenges applies to your household?”
We find eating with friends/family difficult – 67%
I take food for my child if we go out – 57%
My child is uncomfortable at other’s houses regarding food – 56%
We avoid going to restaurants – 30%
Holidays are difficult due to the food – 30%
My child doesn’t like to go to parties – 7%
Food is unfortunately, a key aspect of many social occasions. Think of how many times even simple catchups revolve around food! When we have a child who is not comfortable around variety, navigating social gatherings determined by other people is frequently a nightmare.
This also affects other family members. I know many families who have stopped going out to certain things as it is too stressful or challenging. When selective eating impacts on the rest of the family I question whether this is a problem that should be taken more seriously by society in general?
I’m delighted that the number of children who don’t like going to parties is so low, although still an unacceptable number. I wonder how much that changes across the age of the child too?
Question 4 – “Who in the family is impacted by your fussy eater?”
Themselves – 75%
Caregivers – 56%
Siblings – 46% (but 17% of respondents were single child families)
Extended family – 30%
Themselves – whether a child is affected by their restrictive eating depends on a host of factors, including their age.
Caregivers – interesting that this is only 50% but it’s quite a subjective question and is after the question about how fussy eating make parents feel.
Siblings – other children in the family often get caught up in the challenges posed by a fussy eater. It may be that they don’t get to go to the places they’d like to go to eat or for holidays.
It can also affect sibling’s eating, especially if they are younger.
Extended family – children struggling to participate in meals makes many family occasions more difficult for them and their parents.
I hope this has validated some of your challenges and also shows that many other parents are struggling with the same issues. Never feel you’re the only one dealing with feeding hurdles!
Next week I’ll post the other 6 questions, along with advice as to how you can support your child if eating isn’t easy for them.
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/