Why a fussy eater won’t even try new foods
If I had a dollar for every time the parent of a fussy eater told me their child will not even try new foods, I would be living on a tropical island by now
Most parents who tell me this also say it as though it is unusual, that most children will try foods. However, in my experience, many children who are picky eaters find that first, and crucial step, very challenging.
Understanding why children are not able to even taste new foods can be really helpful because:
1. When we understand what’s happening it can make things less frustrating.
2. We can often support a child in a different way if we know why they are seemingly ‘stubborn’.
3. We can empathise with how they are feeling, which helps us to work as a team not in opposition to each other.
Let us look at some of the reasons why children may be unable or unwilling to try a new food.
But before that, I think it is helpful to define ‘new food’. For us a chicken nugget is a nugget and all of them are pretty much the same. For a super selective eater though, this is not necessarily the case.
A new nugget for them may seem like a completely different food.
Again, I would be rich if I received a dollar for every parent who says to me “but I know they would like it if they just tried it”. That could well be true, but discomfort trying new foods is common and has some logical rationale behind it.
5 reasons why fussy eaters won’t even try new foods
There are many reasons and for your child it may be one or a combination of the following factors:
1. Evolution – if you have a toddler, it is perfectly normal to reject new foods. From an evolutionary standpoint, children were pre-programmed to refuse unusual foods. This would have protected them from accidentally eating something poisonous when becoming more mobile and wandering away from the family.
Unfortunately, this evolutionary driver is still alive and well, which is why we hear a lot about toddlers going through that ‘fussy phase’.
There may also be a tendency to choose high energy foods – which is not the broccoli – as they do have stomachs the size of their fists, so picking high sugar/carb items may also be biologically driven.
However, although this may be the case it does not mean that they are only able to eat certain foods. This is a critical learning phase too and they should have passed through it by aged four or five at the latest.
2. Experience – we all prefer positive experiences over negative ones and tend to seek those out!
This answers another lament I frequently hear from parents of picky eaters: “how come my child happily tries new sweets but can’t even put other new foods near their mouth?”
If you have a super selective eater, even new sweets/cakes/cookies may be a challenge.
However, for many children sweet foods are eaten happily, and the answer as to why is very simple and logical.
Experience tells them that eating sweets is pleasurable. Therefore, when looking at a new one they are confident that they will like it. That positive “I will like it” thought goes a long way to both a) enabling them to try and b) making it more likely a child does accept it and like it once they do try it.
Relating this back to food in general, it therefore makes sense that if a child looks at something and is not sure it is going to be nice, it is far safer to say no than yes. Why go swimming if you do not like water?
3. Habit – unfortunately experience then spills into habit. If a child says no to protect themselves from a potentially unpleasant experience, they get used to saying no.
Over time this becomes an automatic reaction with often very little thought process behind it. Saying no is far safer than taking the risk of saying yes, so it’s way better to just do that!
Most children who are either extremely selective or who have been fussy for a long time will have got into the habit of saying no even before we ask!!
4. Anxiety – a child who is a picky eater, often looks at the new food and experiences anxiety about trying it. There are many reasons for this:
a) This may be a ‘neophobia’, a general fear of trying new things. If we have a child who is generally anxious then food may be just another hurdle in an onslaught of things that increase anxiety.
b) Sensory challenges. A child may look at the food and be overwhelmed by the look, the smell or even the colour. If a child has sensory challenges, then many aspects of food could be confronting.
I like to equate the new food to spiders as a good way for parents to appreciate just how awful something (that we feel is delicious) looks to a child. They are looking at the new nugget and thinking ‘spider’.
In this case, it is not surprising that they are refusing to put the food in their mouth.
If we have a child who is on the spectrum, sensory challenges often prevent easy acceptance of new food. If a child has general sensory challenges, then again trying foods could be more difficult.
Unfortunately, if a child stays on a limited diet for any length of time, sensory challenges can develop, even if those we not initially present.
c) It may be anxiety producing because a child may feel embarrassed if they don’t like the food. Or uncomfortable as they feel everyone is watching them take a bite. Or worried that the food may make them sick/choke or have other negative side-effects.
This may be a feature, for example, for children who have had allergies – especially if undiagnosed for a while.
5. Control – an element of control always creeps into eating/feeding over time. I know many parents who realise that their child has ended up in charge of food, and it often happens so gradually they do not even notice it occurring.
When a child is in charge, they get to make the decisions, and those do not usually involve things that may not be positive – like eating a new food!!
Looking through the list and identifying why a child is not comfortable trying a new food can be a great place to start. It really can enable us to approach feeding in new way. It is also easier to create a situation where a child builds a different comfort level around foods if we have more understanding.
For example, if our child feels uncomfortable because we are constantly watching their every bite, that could be a simple change.
If you’d like support around teaching a child – however selective – to become more comfortable around new foods and therefore be able to try them more happily, that is our specialty. Feel free to get in touch so we can talk through the best way to help you support your child to taste and add new foods.
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/