The number one rule for parents of fussy eaters
There are many simple tactics that support better eating for picky or fussy eaters. Today I’d like to speak about one which is critical.
I had the privilege of speaking to the mum of a 17-year-old diagnosed with ARFID * (see bottom of the blog for an explanation about eating and feeding disorders).
Mum had realised right from the start that her otherwise bubbly, sporty son, was finding food a real challenge. He had a very restrictive diet meaning that he wasn’t able to eat many of the foods that nourish the body.
He also found social occasions, even lunches at school, a real challenge as he could only eat a very narrow range of foods comfortably.
So why am I talking about this mum?
Because she lived and breathed the number one rule for parents of fussy eaters: Never give up.
Despite her son finding new foods incredibly difficult, she was determined to help him eat more widely. By the time we spoke she had managed to support him to gradually add new foods to the point that although his diet was still quite narrow, he was able to eat a range of nutrient dense options.
However, these foods often took a LONG time to add into the diet. It was an ongoing process where success depended on consistent and committed effort.
Was all the work worthwhile? It was a resounding yes from her. Her son had become a top flight athlete and this may not have been possible without the more rounded diet he was able to eat.
Your child is probably not as challenged around food as this boy was, however, I feel that most parents are in the position where consistent, gentle and loving effort can make a big difference in the food sphere.
I see the same challenges play out time and time again. Parents are determined to support their child to eat more widely, but then they realise that their efforts are not effective and they get to the point where they feel nothing will work for their family.
To stop means progress also falters or even that eating gets worse rather than getting better.
So, what can parents do to ensure they never give up?
How to never give up, the number one rule for parents of fussy eaters
I’d like to preface this with the acknowledgment that parents want the best for their child. When eating goes right, it seems so obvious and easy. But when eating goes wrong, it’s the opposite, it’s difficult and very hard to see a way forwards.
Parents don’t of course give up wanting their child to eat widely and well. They just get to a point where nothing they do works and so for everyone’s sanity it’s better to step back. They also know that fed is best – and I 100% agree with that philosophy.
However, from an objective point of view I also know that doing nothing rarely results in forward movement, and in fact, often leads to eating challenges magnifying rather than improving.
Which is why today we’re talking about how to continue even when things seem hopeless:
1. Get help – we wouldn’t think twice about asking for help if we have a child who is finding reading or talking difficult. However, when its feeding challenges often multiple competing thoughts muddy the path.
“They’ll grow out of it”, “it’s a phase” are common ways that food challenges are discussed. Will your child grow out of their eating issues? Possibly. But there is a growing body of research showing that large numbers of children do not in fact do this.
And, even if your child is going to ‘grow out’ of their eating challenges, how long are you happy to wait? What if their eating issues affect their siblings? What if their eating makes social occasions stressful? What if their eating is impacting on their confidence?
We are often also bombarded with advice from friends, relatives, medical professionals who are experts in their field but not in eating, and of course Dr Google.
Sorting through what is advice to be followed and what is unhelpful or even harmful can be a real challenge.
My advice is to find someone who you feel confident in. Someone who speaks in a way that makes you feel comfortable.
2. Make changes – even for the most restrictive of eaters, making changes is critical. If a child sees the same foods served in the same way, over and over, it makes branching into new foods more difficult.
This doesn’t have to be hard to do. And it absolutely must be gentle and if at all possible, fun.
Change may look different for each child depending on their age, stage, and whether there are additional challenges.
Simple places to start could be changing up the way a food is served. For example, instead of toast in squares, it’s toast in triangles. Or, instead of the yoghurt in a bowl, it’s in a glass.
For all children I would not however, recommend springing changes on them at the table. This could be upsetting and it’s never advisable to make food more challenging or less comfortable.
Thinking creatively about how to do this in a fun and gentle way for your child is the key. Is that having ‘silly container day’ when all food is served in something different – is that the toy truck or is it a teacup? Or is it thinking of new shapes we can make with a food and then doing it together?
3. There is hope – I am a firm believer that change and progress are possible for every child. No matter how difficult things seem now, there is a way forward.
The older the child, the more anxious they are around food and the more additional challenges, the more difficult it can be – for sure. However, I have also seen enough ‘nothing works’ cases turn around to know that there is always hope.
Perhaps 2023 is the year of change and progress for your family?
If you would like extra support, please get in touch. I offer a no-obligation initial chat for any family who feels they are stuck and require external input. Feel free to contact me personally.
*Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) is a fairly new eating disorder label that was introduced in 2013. At the time it was the only diagnosis for children with extreme eating challenges.
However, ARFID is both a psychiatric diagnosis and an eating disorder. In Oct 2021 a new diagnosis PFD (Pediatric Feeding Disorder) became available. This is a feeding disorder, and I believe a better fit for almost all of the children from the families I work with. You can look at a quick overview here: https://theconfidenteater.com/pediatric-feeding-disorder-pfd-a-new-picky-eating-diagnosis/
Judith, MA Cantab, Post Grad Dip Psychology, 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/