Picky eating is a spectrum
I was thinking about picky eating being a spectrum rather than a fixed definition at the start of the week. This was after speaking to yet another parent who told me a tale of failure after following the advice of an expert in children, but not an expert in feeding.
I’m sure most parents of a fussy eater have been given some or all of the following advice:
– Just feed them what you’re eating, they will learn to eat it
– They are eating a variety of foods, so they’ll be fine
– Children don’t starve, they will eat when they’re hungry
– Feed them what they like to eat, they’ll branch out when they’re ready
– It’s just a phase, relax
– Keep offering them the food you want them to eat
– They are growing fine so don’t stress.
Advice like this comes from friends and family, but also professionals who work with our children.
And the advice is not necessarily incorrect. There is some truth in most of it and I would recommend parts to some or all parents. However, and it’s a BIG but. Like much general advice, it can be appropriate for some families but not others.
If I equate it to exercise it’s really easy to see where it falls down. I would not expect the plan given to a marathon runner to be the same as for someone who is just beginning to exercise. In fact, having a blanket approach could be very negative for some people.
Eating is the same. A child who prefers nuggets to broccoli is not facing the same challenge as a child who looks at a pizza and thinks “that is the scariest thing I’ve ever had to face”.
Therefore, to treat those children in the same way is crazy. That child who struggles to eat pizza may well starve themselves rather than eat foods which to them are off the scale discomforting.
There are a frightening number of children for whom this is the case.
It’s the reason why thinking of fussy eating as a spectrum is a great way to conceptualise how different children are at either end and therefore how advice, strategies and approach must also differ.
The picky eating spectrum
Before we dive into discussions of the spectrum though, my advice is generally to trust your gut feeling. You know your child best. If someone (anyone) is saying things that do not sit well then question, question, question.
Knowing where your child sits on the spectrum can help make decisions that support them long term. For example, if your child sees pizza and thinks ‘spiders’, they are probably not going to wake up the following day and happily eat your evening meal – no matter how hungry!
Let us think of the left-hand side of the spectrum as children who prefer to eat their favourites (as do most of us) but CAN eat a range of foods.
On the far right of the spectrum are the children with ARFID (Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder), who struggle to eat enough calories to fuel their body.
From the left moving towards the right there are averagely picky eaters.
An averagely picky eater:
– Eats 25+ foods
– Does not have an extreme reaction to new foods
– Will sometimes try something new
– Eats from all the main food groups – protein/carbs/fruit and vegetables
Towards the far right of the spectrum are the super selective eaters.
A super selective eater:
– Eats less than 15 foods
– Has an extreme reaction to new foods
– Rarely tries something new
– Does not eat from all the main food groups – protein/carbs/fruit and vegetables.
Remember this is a spectrum so your child may be a mix of the two. For example, they may eat a fairly wide range of foods, but have a really extreme reaction to something new.
Also, super selective eaters are way more common than you may think. If you’re panicking that this is your child then please don’t. There are definitely ways to support them.
However, it is important that we recognise that if our child is this selective, it’s unlikely they will magically snap out of it.
Logically, if food is this difficult, why would they all of a sudden say “just kidding, give me the moussaka”.
For children who do find food incredibly challenging, much of the ‘normal’ advice is unhelpful or even inappropriate. For example, serving your regular dinner foods and basically creating a situation where it is eat it or starve:
How does this reduce anxiety around food for those children? How does this build a positive relationship with the dinner table or food in general? How does being hungry (or stopping eating regularly and losing those natural hunger cues) help make progress?
With children who have extreme reactions to new foods, support is going to be most helpful when it’s tailored to them specifically and works with their individual needs. Or, at least doesn’t inadvertently make challenges worse.
If you’re worried that your child is near the extreme end you can watch a quick video here:
This talks through common red flags that help identify when fussy eating is more than just a normal phase.
When watching, also be aware of how many compromises may have crept in that ‘hide’ the real situation. Parents frequently, over time, introduce all sorts of ways to ‘make eating work’. Quite understandable, as we all need to ensure that our child is fed!
Please also, do not panic if you know that your child is on the extreme end of picky eating. You are not alone and there are many ways to support even the most anxious and challenged of eaters.
However, knowing where your child sits is important and useful. It also enables us to filter advice.
Is advice suitable for my child?
1. When a child is not adding new foods. If your child has not added a new food for months, logically why would this suddenly happen? Unless you are able to do something differently, or enable them to do so, then it’s unlikely that they will magically change eating habits.
2. Trying foods. If they are unable to taste new foods, again it is unlikely that all of a sudden progress will happen without a substantial change. Being able to eat something requires firstly being able to taste it happily.
3. Extreme reaction. If our child has a negative reaction to new foods, how are they going to be able to put those in their mouth and enjoy them?
4. Dropping foods. Very worrying (and very common) is funnelling. This is where a child refuses to eat foods they previously accepted.
It is one of the biggest areas of concern and yet is not commonly discussed or identified.
Most super selective eaters go backwards rather than forwards over time. This occurs as they get bored or have bad experiences with foods – or their approach becomes more rigid – so foods are dropped.
If we are following general advice and only checking whether they are growing, for example, then going backwards is not on the radar.
Although parents over time realise their child is eating less and less variety they may not see this as a red flag.
What can parents do?
Firstly, it is important to recognise where your child sits on the picky eating spectrum.
Secondly, filter all advice through the lens of their situation. How difficult do they find tasting new foods, what is their approach to food in general and are they adding or dropping foods?
Lastly, evaluate whether you are able to make changes that will support them to move forwards, or whether you are comfortable adopting a relax and ‘wait and see’ approach. Neither option is right or wrong, it’s a question of what’s a fit for you and your family.
If you would like more support please feel free to contact me for a free mini consult: https://calendly.com/judith-23/bookatimewithjudith?month=2022-01
Judith 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/
There’s Been a Seismic Shift!
There has been a seismic shift in our family dynamic post our consultation with you! It has been an incredibly positive
experience for us.
We are pretty religiously eating breakfast and dinner
together which has been a really positive for everyone. The power shift has been hard for Oli*, 8 but we’ve definitely made some positive steps – he’s eating tinned peaches (his idea) on his cereal (after your amazing Jelly trick that you taught us) and has tried some banana.
He’s tolerating yoghurt again in his lunchbox which is coming back pretty clean. He loved the chocolate muffins.
We understand this is a marathon and not a sprint so have realistic expectations. Our youngest daughter Charlotte* has astounded us – she’s eating pretty much everything we present to her (so much so, she asked where the lettuce and carrots were at breakfast!)
We can’t thank you enough for the help you have given us so far.