Is my picky eater weird?
I hear all sorts of stories when I speak to parents about their child’s eating.
Before working with families, I always spend time talking to one or both parents about what is currently happening. We start by looking at what their child currently eats and what happens around food and feeding.
Frequently, parents are really uncomfortable discussing some aspects of their child’s eating habits and can be concerned that they are unusual or ‘weird’. Much of the time, although their child may not be eating like other competent eaters, what they are doing is quite common.
That strange behaviour or unusual tastes are often also really logical when we look at it through a picky eating lens.
The way our child behaves around food, or the choices they make, can also tell us lots about how they are feeling around eating and even where there may be challenges.
Weird or not so weird things
I am very rarely surprised hearing parents describe eating eccentricities. In fact, things that parents find really weird and often concerning are often traits that are shared with many other picky eaters.
I wanted to go through a few (there are so many) things that I see regularly to give you some perspective if these are happening in your house.
I have also included advice that I have seen work with families who have faced the same challenges:
1. Dry cereal. Having a child that is only okay with cereal dry, even if they quite happily drink milk from a cup.
This may be a challenge with mixing. Many children – even competent eaters – find combining foods difficult. Mixing foods, especially those with very different textures, like milk and cereal can be hard to manage.
Or, our child may not like the change in texture from crunchy to a little soggy. I know this is true of many adults too!
Ways to help maybe, for example, having a small bowl of milk next to the dry cereal and model dipping bits of cereal into this. This can be lots of fun, get creative with why the cereal is getting dipped – a bird diving for fish?
2. No sandwiches. Not being able to manage to eat a sandwich is surprisingly common.
Again, it could be a challenge with putting foods together. Bread on its own can be managed as can a piece of ham or cheese, for example, but combining them together is one step too far!
Like the cereal it may also be a textural change that is the challenge. Bread is very consistent so easy to manage. Once we add some slippery ham, for example, it totally changes how it feels in the mouth.
My advice is to consistently serve foods together – even if they are separate on the plate – to help our child, over time, be able to eat as one.
We can also put a square of bread at one end of a skewer, a slice of cheese in the middle and another piece of bread at the other end of the skewer. It’s a deconstructed sandwich and a lovely, gentle way to encourage sandwich eating.
3. Peeling sausages. I know this one often makes parents feel like something there is something awfully wrong, but it’s super common!
Again, it’s mostly about texture. The outer casing is chewy and can feel stringy in the mouth, whereas the meat inside is what I have heard referred to as ‘prechewed’. Sausage meat is really easy to eat as requires little chewing (once we get rid of that pesky skin!).
I find that children often learn to eat with the skin over time so in the interim peeling keeps that food on the menu. There may also be sausages with softer skins that are easier to manage.
4. Certain foods are only eaten in specific places. Our child may happily scoff a bowl of porridge with brown sugar with grandad but totally baulk when we try to serve it at home. Or talk about how yummy the chicken pasta is at daycare, but flatly refuse to even think about it at home.
It is really common for fussy eaters to do this. Eating well is all about comfort levels. Eating porridge with grandad is about everything that makes that possible. It may be the relaxed atmosphere, the undivided attention, the jokes or knowing that it makes gran proud of us.
When we serve the porridge at home, some of those elements are missing and so our child doesn’t have the same confidence that they are able to manage to eat the food.
The good news is that if our child can eat porridge, they can eat porridge. It may take time, but they will be able to do this at home too. Getting frustrated usually works against us.
Generally, it’s better to look for things that make foods work in other settings and reproduce what we can at home.
Then, it’s being calm and serving small amounts of the food we want eaten but without drawing attention to it or putting pressure on our child to eat it. For example, if it’s porridge, serving a small portion next to their regular breakfast. Or bonus points for modelling eating it with joy like grandad!
5. Pasta must be plain. Many picky eaters love pasta but not if it’s served with anything on it. Again, we are looking at challenges mixing, plus confidence. Our child knows they like pasta but once we add something to it, it becomes a totally different food.
Often dipping is easier than having a sauce poured on top. Using a cocktail stick, for example, to model (this is where the fun comes in) picking up a piece of pasta and dunking it into the tomato sauce.
Make it easy for our child. What can we use for a sauce that is easily accepted? Is it softened peanut butter, honey, or ketchup?
If they are not ready for dipping yet, I would still be consistently serving a little of the sauce or chicken etc. next to the pasta. When we repeatedly put things together it helps our child build a connection between them.
6. Eating a spicy curry but everything else is plain. I often come across children who will eat something with lots of flavour, but then everything else is toast and crackers. I know many picky eaters who have a random food thrown in amongst the beige.
I have seen calamari and aioli or blue cheese dip, even among children who have very limited food choices.
i) We often assume that picky eaters prefer very plain foods because they do eat primarily basic and uniform foods.
However, even the fussiest of eaters enjoy eating food that tastes good.
ii) We presume that our picky eater is more likely to eat something simple like a carrot than an olive with its complex flavours and texture, but again this is not the case.
Picky eaters are able to manage to eat a food because they have a comfort level with it.
That may be because one time they were ridiculously hungry at a party and watched an older cousin take an olive and eat it with obvious pleasure, giving them the confidence to try one too.
Or it may be that it’s dad’s favourite curry and he guards it jealously.
My advice is not to pick and choose which foods to offer a fussy eater. Think of all foods as having equal ‘street cred’ and serve positively.
7. It is the wrong colour. I was speaking to a mum recently who told me that her daughter, when young, had a hatred of green.
Not just the usual broccoli or spinach but also green jelly, for example. It took her parents ages to figure out that the tantrum was because the green icy pole was not okay whereas a red one was.
Being really uncomfortable around certain colours or textures or smells is really common, especially if our child has additional challenges like ASD or sensory sensitivities.
Looking for patterns as a parent so we know what triggers discomfort is really helpful in establishing what it is that our child wants to avoid.
Then, counterintuitively, instead of not serving those foods and shielding them, it’s all about how to introduce them, but do it in a very gentle way.
Unfortunately, avoiding things often creates more discomfort over time so works against us.
8. It gets eaten one day and rejected the next.
If we have a young child this is super common, even for competent eaters. Loving bananas one day and only wanting to eat those and then ‘hating’ them the next, is normal behaviour for toddlers and young preschoolers.
As a child gets older, refusing foods has far more to do with comfort and control:
i) Comfort. If eating is a challenge, then everything has to be perfect to be able to manage a food. That means that the nuggets are okay one day but the next they look a little too brown or soggy or a funny shape. Suddenly, the confidence that they are okay to eat disappears.
ii) Control. Again, if eating is not comfortable then a child only wants to do it when everything is perfect. If the nuggets are a little different looking then it’s much easier to dig the heels in and demand a swap than risk eating something that may not be exactly how we want it.
Or, we’d prefer to eat what we want, when we want so will hold out for a favourite choice.
In all of these situations, I would be very calm and not make a fuss about what was happening. I would not swap out one food for a favoured one, and I would keep serving the foods that are rejected, alongside something else that can be eaten.
There are many more quirks that we may encounter when feeding a child who seems fussy around foods. Often the behaviour may seem weird but does make logical sense. Always, our reaction to what’s happening can make a difference to how things unfold in the future.
Is there something your child does with or around food that you think is really unusual?
Please share this article with other parents who may benefit from the advice.
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/