Why your fussy eater can’t try foods
“I don’t like it!”
“But Sam you haven’t tried it”
“It’s horrible, I know I don’t like it”.
“Emily you’re going to love these nuggets”
Emily shrinks back like they are worms …
If these sound familiar, you are not alone. Children who are extremely fussy eaters are often so uncomfortable with new foods that they cannot even contemplate getting them anywhere near the mouth.
Depending on how selective your child is, this could be true of all foods, or a particular type of food. Perhaps they are able to tackle new dessert-type foods or new bread or carbohydrate options, but the thought of a new vegetable sends them into a panic.
Picky eating is experienced along a spectrum, so some children are going to find tasting foods okay, but they are not adding them to the menu. Or maybe they are doing the quick, nano nibble as a parent-pleasing exercise with zero intention of liking what they are tasting.
On the extreme end of fussy eating there are far more children that are unwilling to even taste new foods than you would imagine.
Experts around the world agree that 5-10% of ALL children have eating challenges so severe that they will not grow out of them without intervention.
This is backed up by my experience working with over 100 families per year and talking to many, many more.
Often discovering why a child is selective can help establish why your fussy eater can’t try foods.
Why your fussy eater can’t try foods
There are many reasons why children find new foods difficult to contemplate. Some of the most common reasons are:
1. ASD. Over 80% of children on the spectrum have food challenges. There is also a correlation between ADHD and selective eating and anxiety and difficulty eating widely and well.
2. Sensory sensitivities. If a child finds textures, tastes, smells etc. uncomfortable, it’s no wonder that eating becomes challenging. Eating is an enormously sensory experience and engages all eight senses.
3. Allergies or food intolerances. If there is discomfort around food it makes sense why children refuse certain foods. This is particularly true if these go undiagnosed for a while. Silent reflux is similarly likely to cause discomfort with food.
4. Trauma around food. Perhaps it’s choking on some stringy meat or something that is eaten prior to vomiting. It could also be something that is minor to us, but major to them.
5. Slow development. As eating is learned in a sequential way it’s common for children to not have the skills to master certain stages and so their eating competence is affected.
6. Constipation. Not going regularly is common for fussy eaters but it can also become quite chicken and egg. Children are constipated as their diet is so narrow but then they don’t want to eat more widely as they are uncomfortable eating.
7. Major life changes. I speak to dozens of parents who can pinpoint their child’s eating challenges to a move, a new kindy, a long sickness, or a new baby. Or maybe, food is not prioritised as a parent has too many plates spinning.
Food is a great place to channel fears as it is under a child’s control, so upheavals can manifest in fussy eating, particularly if they have never been particularly comfortable around food.
8. Toddler phase spirals. It is common for toddlers to be food neophobic (refuse new foods). This is perfectly normal but can easily spiral into ongoing food refusal and a reason your fussy eater can’t try foods.
Whatever the reason for a child becoming selective, it’s also almost inevitable for food to turn into a power struggle. When a child takes charge over food – which almost always happens – over time it leads to a more and more restrictive diet.
Unfortunately, the longer a child follows a narrow diet, the harder it becomes to start to branch out. There are also studies which show that avoiding certain types of foods for a while can even build up sensory sensitivities to them, even if one did not exist before.
It’s therefore really important to understand where your child is coming from.
Understanding why your fussy eater can’t try foods
One of the most common things I hear from parents is “I know he/she would like it if they just tried it”.
Although this is probably the case it’s just not that simple, and consistently thinking like this can make things more difficult for both parent and child.
Selective eating is super frustrating to cope with for parents. Watching a child consistently refuse to put food near their mouth, even those foods you are convinced they will love is painful.
But they are not thinking of that food in the same way you are.
Your thought process, looking at, for example, a new type of pasta in a creamy sauce, goes something like this:
“I like pasta, I’m okay with cream, I’ll have a little taste and if it’s okay I can have more. If it’s not nice, no problem as there are also the rolls and salad to fill me up”.
It’s logical, its prefrontal cortex thinking. It’s going through a thought process.
A selective child looks and says “new, NO”. Or “ewwwww”. Logical thought is not happening. There is no pre-frontal cortex activation.
Instead, the stay safe part of the brain takes over. The brain activates the same reaction in a child’s body as it would if it was a lion running towards them.
The fight, flight or freeze and therefore stay safe, gut reaction is put into play. A child may be viewing the new food (and this will depend on how anxious they are around food) as something to be feared, think spiders or worms.
If that new food is spiders then why would you even, consider eating it? You’re not going through reasons why it may be nice as it’s spiders. Mum and dad talking about how they love it, you’ll love it, it’s delicious etc. is blah blah – because it’s spiders!!
This is not silly, in fact, it’s the opposite, it’s very logical.
Every time a child says no, the brain also rewards that decision by saying “well done, you stayed safe by not risking eating that food”.
Over time, it becomes an automatic no. Why even think, it’s new therefore it’s spiders. That no is a stay safe reaction and is far less risky than eating something that is potentially awful.
When your child seems to almost shrink back in horror from a food that seems perfectly fine, you are seeing this in action.
This is also why many of the strategies that work for averagely picky eaters do not work for very selective eaters or children with food anxiety. “If you eat this you can have ice cream” – spiders. “If you don’t eat this, you’ll get hungry” – spiders.
What can you do if your fussy eater can’t try foods?
All of this makes it sound very gloom and doom, but that’s not the case.
Understanding where a child is coming from is a great first step.
It stops us getting as frustrated. Instead of being upset that our child is not trying a food, if we can look at it and think “spiders” it gives us empathy. It also enables us to stop pushing them to do something we would not even consider doing ourselves (spiders anyone??).
Then it’s a question of how to prevent everything new from seeming like spiders.
And of course, it will depend on how food anxious a child is as to how new foods are viewed. But the spiders gut “no” reaction is not one that is uncommon among picky eaters.
You can link here for some gentle ways to approach food for your hesitant eater: https://theconfidenteater.com/blog/picky-eating-support/feed-like-you-read/
If you’d like more support with your child’s eating you can also book in here for a no-cost initial appointment: https://calendly.com/judith-23/bookatimewithjudith?month=2023-07
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/