What do parents of fussy eaters say? – Part two:
Last week I discussed the first half of the results from a survey on fussy eating I sent out to parents of picky eaters.
I wasn’t surprised at what parents reported as I do spend all day talking to them! However, it was still confronting having all the answers summarised.
I’d like to share the last 6 answers with you and also add in some thoughts and advice.
What parents said in the survey
Question 5 – “Do you feel others judge your child’s eating and your parenting in this area?”.
75% of parents said yes.
That’s a lot of shaming, stigma and discomfort being shared around.
I’m always curious about why feeding attracts such negativity, shame, and guilt. If there is a child who is obviously struggling with other areas, in general, we are kind and supportive.
However, when it comes to eating a lot of blame gets laid at the feet of parents.
Messages about healthy eating and lunchbox policing do not of course help.
I’m on a mission to change this. Watch this space
Question 6 – “Have you sought help for your child’s eating?”
No – 36%. In speaking to parents not seeking help is common. There are some reasons which I hear over and over:
– I was thinking they would grow out of it / once they got older / once they went to school / my other child got better with age
– I didn’t think it was a problem because they do eat xyz
– The GP/ my family / friends told me I was worrying unnecessarily
– I’ve done a lot of reading and we tried x and then y and then z
– Every time I go to ask for help my child does something a little better
– We’re so busy and I’m overwhelmed, I didn’t have the energy
No – 12% – “As I couldn’t find anything that was suitable/within my budget”.
These are parents who identified that they needed help but weren’t able to get anything appropriate.
Then there were many who said yes, but were still struggling with fussy eating:
Yes – 32% – I’ve seen the GP.
I would always recommend checking in with your GP. It’s great to know there aren’t any medical challenges affecting your child’s eating and to make sure their growth is still on their curve.
However, GP’s are not generally focused on nutrition so aren’t looking for issues with eating nor identifying when there are problems.
Yes – 60% – Seen a paediatrician, dietician, nutritionist, speech therapist, occupational therapist or done a program at the hospital.
That’s a lot of parents who have previously had help but are still responding to a picky eating survey!
My advice when seeking help is to ensure the provider has specific training in resolving fussy eating. Experts may be amazing in their field but have no additional skills in supporting families with a picky eater.
Question 8 – “What are your core challenges with fussy eating?”
The responses to this question very much mirror the conversations I have with families.
Unfortunately, as we often don’t speak about fussy eating, parents feel their child is uniquely challenged.
I know that the following list will have many parents nodding and agreeing:
86% – “Unwillingness to try new foods”. This is one of the defining features of selective eating, not being comfortable to taste a new food so is naturally very common!
78% – “No/very few foods being added”. Again, this is one of the factors that constitutes fussy eating. If a child is not tasting new foods they are also unlikely to be adding foods.
Unfortunately, the combination of these two can mean children go backwards instead of forwards in their eating. If they are rarely adding but occasionally dropping foods, then their diet narrows instead of widening. The opposite to the “they’ll grow out of it” mantra.
71% – “Child missing out on nutrients”. Many parents are concerned that their child is not getting everything they need for optimal growth. Although it is important to get a range of vitamins and minerals, there are a few common worries I’d like to address:
– Even your child doesn’t eat meat it is still very likely they are getting all the protein they need. It is almost impossible in a Western diet to be protein deficient.
– If your child avoids vegetables but eats a range of fruit they will be getting the vitamins and fibre they need while they do learn to eat veg.
If your child lives on a limited diet they may be zinc deficient which can affect immunity, the way food tastes and their appetite.
70% – “Limited menu”. Again, this is one of the defining features of selective eating, having a narrow range of foods that are accepted.
67% – “I provide my child different meals to the rest of the family”. It’s inevitable that if a child has a limited range, they will end up with different options.
My advice is to involve them as much as possible in your meals – while always still providing something they are able to eat – and not to dumb your options down to meet theirs. It’s important you set an example they can follow.
52% – “School/Kindy lunches very limited”. To be honest, I expected this number to be higher. I know it’s one of the main stressors for parents. This is probably partly due to judgement, but also because their child is often taking the same foods day after day. If these foods seem less than optimal and that happens multiple times a week it can cause worry.
47% – “Dropping foods previously eaten”. This goes against the “they’ll grow out of it” mantra. Feeding advisors agree that many children eating a limited diet are more likely to drop than add foods, often for many years.
If your child is dropping foods previously eaten it’s a red flag and one to note if they are also not adding foods.
44% – “Stressful meals”. Many parents report how hard on them their child’s eating is. This is one aspect of fussy eating that is rarely discussed, but so important. The toll on parents can be huge.
40% – “Food must be prepared/served in a specific way”. Again, rigidity around food is common. It can also exacerbate over time. When a child exists on a limited diet for a while they often become hyper-focused on the food they do eat.
Sensory sensitivities, ASD, ADHD can all contribute too.
30% – “Child not eating enough”. Parents are frequently concerned that their child is not eating enough. Although this is true of some children, selective eating can also mean a lack of enthusiasm for eating so it seems they are eating less than they actually are. Or they are eating food but away from meals disguising volumes.
28% – “Frequently not eating away from home”. If a child is generally uncomfortable around eating, then eating when away from the safety of home or where food is prepared/served in ways that are familiar can make eating more challenging.
It is certainly not uncommon for children not to eat well at school/Kindy/daycare or even not to eat at all. Again, this would be a red flag and indicate that their eating challenges may require intervention.
24% – “Extreme reaction to new foods”. If your child does have an extreme reaction to new foods it’s unlikely that they will be adding new foods in the short term. Working on comfort around food is critical in this situation.
Question 9 – “Do you feel you could resolve the eating challenge with support?”.
No – 38% – this was a depressing number of parents who feel that their child’s eating is beyond any help they can provide.
I would love to provide input here, as I do believe parents are a crucial piece of the puzzle and they probably have a lot more influence than they believe – even if their child is older.
It also means there are a substantial number of parents who do think they are able to help their child with help. This is my long-term goal, to ensure parents can access that support should they need it!
Question 10 – “How does your child feel about food?”.
74% – “Okay but likes what they like only”. Many children, especially if they are younger, fall into this category.
40% – “Only interested in snack-type foods”. Snack foods are, in general, far easier to contemplate than dinners. They are often carbohydrates or sweetened, and don’t have the same complexity or challenge as meals.
28% – “Anxious/fearful”. Having an extreme discomfort around food can mean it causes anxiety, especially new foods, or those out of the comfort zone. If your child is extremely uncomfortable around food, any gentle ways to gradually build that confidence is valuable.
15% – “Disinterested”. I’m delighted this is a lower number than I was expecting. When a child is uncomfortable around food it can often lead to disinterest. There are of course, also those children who just don’t enjoy eating and so it’s easier not to.
Conversely, it’s also important to note that children often seem disinterested, but it is more about comfort levels and once you work with those, the interest also seems to resolve itself.
I hope you found the results of the survey interesting and perhaps also reassuring.
Knowing that your child is not “uniquely challenged” around food can be nice!
If you have any questions please feel free to ask.
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/