Your little one used to be a happy little Hoover, vacuuming up anything and everything you set before them. But, then somewhere around the age of two the mouth shuts, the jaws are set, and suddenly the reaction you get when trying to introduce foods (especially new food) is No Way!!! So you ask yourself, why is my child such a picky eater?

The reasons behind all the fuss.
There’s actually an evolutionary reason why your little one is suddenly aghast at the notion that you should try to make them eat anything other than a boiled egg and crackers five times a week. The picky eater phase usually kicks in during a time frame related to when your toddler starts to toddle.

First – children’s taste buds are more sensitive. People sometimes claim they’ve developed a refined palate, but really our palates are never as refined as they are when we’re little. So while you might enjoy the slightly sour taste of Brussel sprouts as it complements the other flavours of a meal what your child tastes is the equivalent of an overwhelming flavour bomb.

Second – it goes back to our ancestors. In the time of caves instead of condos it would have been a very bad idea for newly-mobile children to start cramming anything and everything they found into their mouths. There are a lot of poisonous plants and animals out there; therefore the sudden reluctance to chow down on any old thing is actually a survival instinct.

There’s actually a name for this fear of new foods – neophobia (which is actually the fear of new things or situations).

The point is it’s not your cooking – you’re not a miserable failure as a parent. That reluctance to try new foods has almost nothing to do with your parenting – it’s evolution. (According to a study by Dr. Lucy Cooke from the University of London 78% of that food-associated neophobia is genetic.)

What to about picky eating.
First off, don’t panic. Unless your child is becoming unhealthily underweight or overweight (based on their favourite foods) they’re going to be fine. Most children are fine with some flavoured vitamins that can be used to supplement their diet for the time being. Here are four very useful tips that could help you.

  1. Try making helpful associations.
    There are probably a handful of foods that your toddler does enjoy. So try to expand their little palates by first introducing foods that are similar to the ones that get the green light. If he likes green grapes, try purple grapes (take him shopping with you, say look here’s grapes, you like grapes, these ones are purple, let’s get some of those), and from there you can expand to purple plums in the same way, and so on. You can use this method with as many different foods you like. If you do take your child shopping, let them put foods in the basket, tell them what they are, and ask them to look around (maybe at fruit and vegetables) and see if there’s anything they want. If you child does choose something, when you get home, let them help you prepare it, and let them offer it to siblings and the other parent. 

    You can also incorporate new foods directly into other acceptable dishes. Broccoli on its own? No way! But a bit of broccoli added to a soup that your child already likes might be just the thing. Keep in mind you probably shouldn’t hide it completely – if this trickery is discovered your child is going to brand you untrustworthy or a liar and you’ll have that much more difficulty in getting them to accept new foods further down the line. Also, if the new food is completely camouflaged then your child isn’t really learning about it at all, and when presented with the food in an undisguised fashion they’ll might insist on throwing it on the floor.

  2. Don’t do bribes.
    “If you eat your spinach I’ll buy you a pony” is probably going to blow up in your face in the long run. The problem here is that your picky eater is wise enough to know that you know this new food is terrible enough to require a bribe, which means they’ll dislike the new food all the more. You will make them suspicious, your child will be left wondering why they are being pressured into eating this food, there must be something horrible about it – and then comes the rejection! Forcing your child to eat a particular food, will almost always lead to them developing a longstanding aversion to it, so avoid doing this.
  3. Make new foods common.
    Have that broccoli that your little one hates be a regular guest on your dinner plates. He’ll reject it completely the first few times. That’s fine, let him, but let him keep seeing it being placed on the plates, and see others eat it without fuss. If he sees that it appears on both his and your dinner plates on a regular basis he’s eventually going to come around to thinking that broccoli is just something that happens around here and that it’s no big thing. There is no need to hype up the broccoli or whatever food it is, by saying ‘it’s so yummy, it’s so good for you, try some’ don’t say anything.
  4. Let your child play/mess about with their food.
    Your child isn’t just making a mess when they play with their food. Instead, they’re learning about it, and the more they learn the more they’ll have confidence that Mum or Dad probably isn’t trying to poison them with horrible flavours this time.You can also have them help you prepare food (safely, of course). Having him or her pull apart broccoli to bite-sized portions helps them to become familiar with the food, plus it can give them a sense that they’re “in charge” of the food they are going to eat, and that they have nothing to fear here.
  5. Older siblings can have an influence.
    If an older sibling enjoys a particular food that has been rejected by your picky eater then put that enjoyment on display. Sibling competition is going to make your younger one demand to know why they don’t get green beans when Big Sis or Bro is stuffing his or her face with them. Just keep in mind that this is a powerful tool, so don’t put on display the older sibling’s dislike for a food – you’ll end up with two picky eaters for the price of one.

Getting Help
Some parents choose to seek advice for picky eating, especially when is extreme fussy eating, I have seen children with diets of peeled fish-fingers (breadcrumbs removed), white rice, and grated cheese, all white food, all brown food, or boiled egg (no yolk) with a packet of crisp – all to be eaten 3 times a day, every day. If things are this bad it is wise to seek professional advice, see your GP, who might be able to refer you to a Clinical Psychologist for a specific tailored intervention.

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