Why does a picky eater add a food then regress?
I had a super exciting end to last week being up in Auckland for media appearances to talk about Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. Interviews can be a little frustrating if the interviewer doesn’t really understand picky eating as questions can miss the mark. When this happens, it can mean that we spend a lot of time talking about generalities or get off topic. However, not this time!
I was interviewed for two TV chat shows and one morning radio show. The questions put together for each of the three interviews were amazing. Why? Because each of the three had a host with a seriously picky eater.
I was so excited to be able to talk about real challenges and feel like I could add value. Each of the interviews went over time and two of them (pre-recorded) will have to be edited as we got so immersed in the topic.
Although excited, it also brought home to me what a huge problem fussy eating is for parents. Three shows, and three families where food is a real challenge. The hosts were almost apologetic for using their show to get information that may help them with their own children. But why wouldn’t you if this is such a stressful problem to deal with?
Once I have copies of the recordings, I will post them up so we can all watch! I would also like to go into a bit more detail than I had time for with some of the questions and also answer some we didn’t get to!
Why a picky eater may add a food then regress
One of the questions we didn’t get around to was ‘what about when you have some success with a food and then they regress?’. This is a great question that I’d love to answer here.
For older children:
1. Confidence. Always my favourite! If a child has added a new food it is because, for whatever reason, they have found a level of confidence that they are able to eat it. Maybe it is because you have been serving them chicken for a long time and they have finally built up the courage to try it.
Perhaps they have been sitting with a friend for lunch who always has a similar food and they have been building up the confidence to taste it for themselves.
Often in the early stages though, that confidence is fragile. The ability to eat the new food is not fixed and it can be easier to not eat it than risk eating it ,leading to regression.
2. Social awareness. Sometimes we, the parent, or others inadvertently crush that newfound confidence. Telling all the relatives that ‘Ben now eats chicken’ can put our child in the spotlight and without realising it, make it difficult for them.
3. Progress is situational. It is normal for a child to be able to eat something new but only in a certain context. For example, on holidays they choose hash browns from the breakfast buffet, love them, and eat them every day. Returning from holidays you find that no brands of hash browns are the same and so your child refuses to eat them. This does not mean that hash browns are off the menu permanently, but we may have to do a bit of work to get them back on!
4. Eating is not separate from the rest of life. If our child is feeling anxious or unsettled or upset, the first victim could be their eating. Being able to dictate what goes into the mouth can subconsciously offset a lack of control in other areas. This can lead to foods being dropped from the menu in the short-term.
5. Appetite changes. When our child is in a growth phase, they are often hungrier. This can mean that foods that are on the edge of the comfort zone become accepted. When appetite drops, guess what!
6. Control and habits. Often this is not conscious but has become an automatic pattern developed over years. If the habit is not adding new foods, then it can mean that it is easier to not do it than do it. It can also be a push-back against parents if a child does feel pressured in any way.
Much of this can be part of the general rollercoaster of the age and stage. Even eating competent toddlers can love a food one day and hate it the next!
The same challenges apply for littlies as for older children, but there are also some age specific things to take into account:
1. Independence. Learning to be independent is an important part of growth, it can also be a nightmare for parents. Toddlers knowing they are able to say ‘no’ and exercising that right repeatedly can be very tiring. Sometimes this has nothing to do with the food and everything to do with testing boundaries and seeing what happens when they do certain things.
Getting an emotional reaction from us in regards to food refusal can make the ‘game’ that much more fun. For this reason, being as blasé as you can feasibly manage is a great policy – but very hard to do in practice!
2. More discerning. Toddlers start to understand that certain foods are sweeter and more desirable than others so begin to lobby for the foods they prefer. Sensible, but oh so frustrating for parents. Naturally, ice cream is going to be a win for most children over broccoli and even at this age they are expert manipulators.
It is important that we do not give in to the 2-foot terrorists and maintain control!
3. More aware. At this age, toddlers are developing preferences, they are also becoming more cognisant of a range of other sensory and situational cues. Where often a baby will slurp happily on mushed veggies, a toddler starts to take more notice of the texture and the way that foods look, feel and smell.
Often toddlers start to refuse things because there is a discomfort for them in regards to some aspect of the food. How we handle this as a parent can make all the difference.
Taking steps forwards and steps backwards is really common when building the confidence of your picky eater. Progression is rarely linear – particularly when they are littlies. But, knowing this is powerful as it enables us to not despair and give up, especially when this could be just a little blip.
Conversely, if our child is regressing and it seems like it is a more permanent change then it’s important to evaluate why. Are they feeling more anxious or has the atmosphere at the table become less relaxed, for example?
I am really happy to talk to any parent who feels as though things are going backwards and they are not sure why, or how to prevent this from happening.
In conclusion, doing this round of media interviews just reconfirms what I see day in day out. Picky eating is not a problem confined to a few parents and their children but is something that plagues so many families. This has made me even more intent on achieving my mission ‘to ensure that all children are able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear’.
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 doing post graduate studies in Psychology. 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/