Is fussy eating a modern phenomenon?
One of the mum’s asked this on the Facebook page earlier in the week. She said, “how come our mothers and grandmothers don’t talk about fussy eaters?”
It’s one of the questions I frequently get asked and I think my answer is both a yes and a no as to whether picky eating is a modern problem!
Fussy eating previously
Let’s discuss the yes and the no’s
1. Were there fussy eaters in previous generations? Absolutely! Many people tell the stories of Uncle Mick who lived on peanut butter sandwiches until he was ten.
Or how they used to come to the table and refuse to eat anything so were ravenous by the time breakfast rolled around.
A few years ago, a big survey was conducted in the US asking adults whether they identified as a picky eater. Twenty six percent said yes. That means a quarter of those interviewed thought of themselves as fussy.
As people don’t generally become picky that is a lot of fussy children. Now, admittedly it was not a scientific study, but it gives an indication of how prevalent fussy eating is!
I know from experience that fussy eating is frequently a guilty secret so it’s not something spoken about. Parents often hide their child’s challenges from others, and then as children age, they disguise their own habits.
I also follow a Facebook page for adult picky eaters and there are so many of them! Their stories are frequently quite emotive too given the number of challenges they face that most of us don’t even think about.
2. Do as I say. I know I was raised by parents who believed children should do what they were told if the instruction came from an adult.
Although this may have led to children eating things they would not normally choose to, it has also generated a lot of negative experiences and thoughts about food.
The number of parents I’ve spoken to who relate a traumatic story about being forced to eat something, or having cold dinner served for breakfast or even one who was tied to a chair!!
In none of these situations did the mis-guided efforts of their parents lead to a love of that food.
Which lets me put in one of my biggest soap box issues. If what we do doesn’t lead to a love of a food, then it’s counterproductive. Yes it may result in short-term ‘better’ eating but long-term it can often do more damage than good.
Hiding food … mumble, mumble…
3. Limited choices. When I was growing up meals were prepared – generally by the mum – and that was what was to eat. There just wasn’t the choice that is available today. Swapping was far more difficult!
Fussy eating now
1. Parenting is different. I know the way I communicate with my children and the autonomy they have is very different to how I was parented. I do not expect them to do something just because I say so.
I do, however, still have boundaries and expectations, they are just phrased and communicated in different ways.
The challenge is, finding the right balance between giving our children autonomy and yet still maintaining control. I know I have frequently got it wrong!
If we don’t have some simple parameters in place around food though, things can quickly go south.
2. Choice. Modern children are naturally given more choices around food (see point above). They are also able to substitute food more easily than in years past.
There are so many ready to eat choices available it is far easier to skip the family meals.
3. Life is busy and stressful. Many parents work with long hours expected or under pressure. Even for parents who stay at home there seems to more emphasis on filling the hours with activity.
Children too often have busy schedules with lots of activities, sports, and social occasions.
All this contributes to less time and energy to expend on cooking and eating. Meals are more likely to be ad hoc and frequently snacks are needed to fill hungry tummies.
What can we do?
Let’s look at the reasons noted why there may be more fussy eating around these days, then ways we can still support our child to eat widely and well within those challenges:
1. Be in control around food. When I say this, I’m talking about boundaries and expectations not becoming a dictator! I know how badly that would go down in my house
Being in control means that we decide some of the key parameters, like when it is dinner time and when it’s not. Having set times for eating makes a big difference to how well meals go.
These can be flexible from day to day, it’s more about having times that are for eating and times that are not, rather than having an open pantry or grazing.
Snacks are often far easier to eat than regular food so if we do allow our child to fill up on them, they can come into meals not hungry enough to be motivated about what we serve. They are then of course, hungry again after dinner exacerbating the cycle.
Having parameters and expectations around eating is also good for our child. Knowing what is going to be happening and when is positive.
2. Choice. There are so many food options and many of them are designed to be convenient, and oh so more-ish!
If we want our child to eat more of the dinner-type foods – which is the core challenge for most parents of fussy eaters – then deciding what is on the menu is important.
We can still give our child choices within that. It may be “did you want sausages or pasta for dinner”? But then if our child chooses sausages that is what is served, and no swaps are permitted.
If we serve a sausage they normally enjoy and they decide not to eat it then that is generally behavioral, rather than about eating. In that case I would treat it like any other behavioral challenge.
3. Finding spaces for eating. Busy lives can make following ‘rules’ around eating far more challenging. On the other hand, setting boundaries and expectations is always important.
A family meal is one child and one adult so even in mad lives we can usually squeeze quite a few of these in during the week. If dinner is difficult then breakfast and lunch can still be important ways to model eating well and instill positive messages around food.
Remember, our children learn far more from watching us than they do from instructions
Even if we are all rushing around, we can still do things that improve eating like making sure snacks are not prioritized over other foods. Or looking for snacks that tick boxes in terms of nutrients.
If you do have challenges caused by modern pressures, I have lots of strategies to work around them. Feel free to get in touch!
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/