Why fussy eaters suddenly reject foods?
“We ask James what he wants for breakfast, and he says Cocopops. We give him a bowl and he shakes his head and refuses to eat it.”
“Olivia has always liked bananas, but now she’s refusing them and says she doesn’t like them.”
“Ben ate carrots yesterday and said he liked them. But today when we served them he wouldn’t eat them.”
“We’ve always bought the same chicken nuggets for Aroha but all of a sudden, she’s saying they are different, and she doesn’t want to eat them.”
“I cooked Ali’s favourite meal and he said it looked yuck.”
Do any of these resonate with you?
There are many variations on these, but these are the sort of things I hear from parents of fussy eaters all the time.
It makes buying, preparing, and serving foods a nightmare. If fussy eaters suddenly reject foods it is often both frustrating and baffling.
However, there are also, often very good reasons this happens. Let’s look at some of the causes of sudden refusals.
Why do fussy eaters suddenly reject foods?
1. Age & stage. Toddlers. If you have a toddler they are often caught up in a roller-coaster of emotions. Developmentally they are finding their place in the world.
It’s therefore normal for them to seek independence by making decisions, whether logical or not! They are also notoriously self-centred and so want to do the things that make them happy – RIGHT NOW – and avoid anything that doesn’t.
Even for eating competent children it’s normal for them to beg for 5 bananas one day and then announce they hate them the next.
They are also figuring out where their boundaries are and so testing those limits includes the power to suddenly reject foods. In fact, food is often a keyway to exercise their independence.
Young children can only control 3 things; eating, sleeping and toileting. All 3 tend to get great reactions from parents so may be used liberally. Nothing is more exciting than seeing what happens to mummy’s face when her lovingly prepared dinner gets refused, or dumped on the floor …
2. Power. Whatever the age of your child, over time, eating challenges inevitably begin to involve power struggles. This may not even be something that a child is doing consciously.
An extreme discomfort around food, sensory challenges or anxiety means a child wants to be in charge in order to protect themselves or make themselves feel safe.
Almost every parent I speak to who has a child who struggles to eat well admits that they are in charge around food. It’s almost inevitable.
This unfortunately, makes our life twice as difficult, because not only do we have a child who can’t manage variety and share the family meals but now they are refusing foods they have previously eaten.
3. Mood. Children, particularly fussy eaters suddenly reject foods because they are tired. When we’re tired we have less of a tolerance for something that may not be perfect, or completely to our liking, or looks a little different.
Unfortunately, dinner is the time that we’re most likely to come up against this.
Foods may also be rejected as a child is in sensory overwhelm. They have had a busy day and by the time food is served they are over everything. This is particularly true if food is not something they are super comfortable around.
4. Bad experience. Sometimes fussy eaters suddenly reject foods because they have had a bad experience with them.
i) Unpalatable. Maybe the cracker is soft or the fruit overripe or the nugget is dry. One time our child tries a previously accepted food and finds it unpleasant to eat for whatever reason so rejects it in the future.
ii) It’s not perfect. Over time picky eaters can become hyper focused on the foods they do eat. Because they eat a narrow variety they start to examine those they do eat more carefully.
This can mean that the toast is no longer accepted as it has a brown bit on it. Or the apple refused if there is a bruise.
This rigidity drives parents nuts ☹
iii) Boredom. Eating the same foods over and over can become boring. That’s the paradox of picky eating. Children only want to eat the same foods, but then get bored eating the same foods.
It is one of the main reasons that older fussy eaters frequently consume less foods than they did when they were younger. They become bored or have a bad experience with certain things and drop them from the diet.
All of these factors contribute to foods getting refused. However, the main reason that fussy eaters suddenly reject foods is frequently due to their comfort level around food.
Whether your child is a toddler, has anxiety around foods or is bored with the foods they eat, it all boils down to comfort.
The more comfortable a child is around food in general and new foods specifically, the more likely they are to eat a wide and balanced diet.
Working on that comfort is really important.
How to prevent fussy eaters suddenly rejecting food
It doesn’t matter how old your child is, as the parent, it’s important that we establish the parameters around food. This means that we decide what is being served.
It’s also important that our child is able to eat when they come to the table, so foods they can comfortably manage need to be there. It’s also advisable to have foods they are learning to eat served as well so they can take steps forwards.
If our child can comfortably eat porridge and refuses it I always ask whether this is primarily behavioural? Are they really saying to you “I would rather have ice cream”.
If this is the case, it becomes easier to make the decision as to what to do.
2. Build comfort. This is a key and ongoing task for any parent of a fussy eater.
A child who is more anxious around food approaches it differently. They are looking for it to be predictable, to be as they are expecting, for everything to look/feel/smell/taste the way they’d like it to be. The more extreme the discomfort the more precise the food will need to be.
Therefore, building that comfort level is essential. A child who is confident will easily accept minor or even major changes and still be able to eat happily.
Our job as the parent is to build that food confidence.
To support our child to become more resilient in their food approach. When we do this we start to avoid the ‘eat now, but not tomorrow’ scenarios.
Building this confidence is multi-layered.
How to build comfort around food
1. Give our child confidence by being confident ourselves. If we are sure that our child is able to do something, over time it gives them the confidence that they can too.
2. Building a comfort level around foods for our child. This is done by serving things repeatedly but without pressuring them to eat.
3. Ensuring our child is relaxed at the meal table. The more relaxed we are, the more likely we are to eat. When we are pressuring a child in any way it can backfire.
4. Being very positive around food and ensuring everyone else does the same. Negative words and actions can quickly halt steps forward.
It is common for a fussy eater to suddenly reject foods but there are also many ways you can make this less likely and support them to feel more comfortable around food and so eat more widely and well.
Please share this with other parents you know who may be struggling with food refusals.
Judith, MA Cantab (Cambridge University), Post Grad Dip Psychology (Massey University), 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/