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Behind the Psychology of Picky Eaters and How to Deal With It

All parents have experience with the psychology of picky eaters but don't know what to feed picky toddlers.

It is just a normal part of raising a toddler.


One week it can seem like all they will want to eat is pasta, and then the next week it is marmite and cheese on toast. As the primary cook in the house – fussy eating can drive you nuts.

The reason why it can be hard to deal with fussy eating is that we treat it all the same. But there are two types of fussy eating and each requires a different approach.

The Two Types of Fussy Eating

Some children will have the much talked about traditional fussy eating. This is like the example above where the child goes through a continual rotation of foods they will and won’t eat.

The other type of fussy eating is a refusal to try new foods. The technical term for this is food neophobia or a fear of new foods.

We are going to look at this fear of new foods and show the psychology of picky eaters tips that really help your child to try new foods.

Fear of New Foods (Food Neophobia)

First, you need to understand that this fear is an inbuilt, evolutionary survival mechanism. Think back to caveman times – it was in our best interest to be cautious of new foods. We have found that there are certain types of foods that we tend to be more naturally cautious of than others.

Foods that have a slightly bitter taste, which includes many vegetables, were more likely to be poisonous. Protein, in the form of meat, had a greater chance of going rotten and causing potentially fatal food poisoning.

As a consequence young children will often show an aversion to trying these food groups.

Once we understand this psychology of picky eaters there are a couple of things we can do to increase the chances of our children trying new foods.

How to deal with the psychology of picky eaters

1. Be a Role Model

It is so important for your children to see you sitting down and eating the same foods as them.

Pretend to steal food from their plate or have extra food on your plate which you can give to them when they ask to try some.

Role modelling highlights how important it is to sit down together as a family at mealtimes. Kids need to see you eating the same foods so that their innate survival mechanism will be satisfied that a food is safe to eat.

Show them that you eat that food, you enjoy eating that food, and it has not made you sick.

2. Timing is everything!

Do not expect your child to try something new when they are under stress.

By this I mean that they are: unwell, tired, teething, distracted by something else going on, in a new environment, or overly emotional. Yes, it does narrow down the opportunities you have to try new foods with your child, but you will be making it difficult for yourself if you try and introduce new foods at the wrong time.

Pre-plan and make things relaxed.

3. Be Careful What You Say

Think about how you word things.

Even very young children understand much more than we give them credit for. Those little comments daddy makes about not liking certain foods, or the phone conversation you have to your friend about how frustrating your child is at mealtimes – all get heard and taken on board.

Children will formulate their perception of foods based off what they hear from those they trust.

Dad does not like vegetables, therefore I should not like vegetables.

Mum gets annoyed with me at mealtimes – that gives me attention – I’m going to keep doing it.

My parents don’t think I’ll eat my dinner, I’m already one step closer to getting bribed to have it or getting my favourite cooked for me as an alternative.

4. Slowly Does It

Try not to introduce too many new things at once.

For example, if your child has never eaten butter chicken before it probably wont be a great idea giving them an entire meal of it. However, if they eat chicken and rice, you could put a bit of the sauce on a couple of pieces of the chicken.

It is important to remember if your child gags or vomits on the food then take it back a notch. Change the consistency or texture of whatever that food is, or the amount that you are giving them.

If they have a colour aversion then offer them different colours of the same food. Won’t eat red grapes? Give them a handful of green grapes with one or two red grapes in there.

You can do the same with different coloured noodles, or sauces, or vegetables

5. Play It Cool

Children can pick up those subtle signs we give off.

That little look you flick to your partner, the sigh you do as you exhale and remove the uneaten plate from the table. Maybe you start moving your eyes towards the clock on the wall when you think dinnertime is dragging on too long.

Whatever it is, children see it, and they play off it. It is not enough to say that you don’t care how much they eat.

You really need to sit down at the table and believe that it won’t bother you what they try, or don’t try, that night. Enjoy your meal regardless of what they throw at you (figuratively and literally).

Mealtime can be very frustrating with young children. However once you learn why they are behaving in a certain way you can start to take the control back. Finally you can be the one calling the shots on what is served up at the table.

Five Ways To Stop Fussy Eating

Fussy eating is a challenge for most parents. One minute your child is an amazing food machine who consumes all food on offer. Then suddenly out of nowhere food is getting chucked onto the floor and tantrums become commonplace, and mealtime becomes stressful for the household.

So you're asking what can I do right now that will change the course of eating in your household forever?

Here are my five must-dos for fussy eating.

1. Get real. Get honest

Are you really motivated to change your children’s eating habits?

Here are some stats which might open your eyes –

40% of children in New Zealand are overweight or obese (60% if you are of Pacific Island decent)

50% of children have inadequate fruit and vegetable intake - a massive source of our vitamins and minerals which support children’s immune systems, brain, and body development.

90% of parents say fussy eating is a cause of stress in the family at mealtimes.

Often we see these sorts of statistics but do not connect them with ours or our children’s health. Parents say they struggle to make changes to family mealtimes, however the commitment and motivation has to be there to make these changes.

Ask yourself if your child’s eating is a priority in your life right now. Do you have the time and strength to make changes?

If you are ready then keep reading!

2. Hand Back the Right Kind of Control

Little kids are smart and switched on. It only takes one or two times of you rewarding or bribing them with a treat food before they figure out how they can make you give them that food 24/7.

They are now in control of mealtimes.

Instead, let them have control over positive aspects of the meal. Here are some ways to do this (depending on a child’s age);

Let them choose between two different food options which can be used in a meal

“Do you want beans or peas?”

Try not to just say “would you like peas for dinner?” because they will say “no”.

Only give them either/or options and if they cannot make it themselves, you make it for them.

They will learn to make the decision next time.

Give them routine they can be part of

Getting their own bib or plate, helping to set the table, walking or crawling to their chair, serving up food. For very young infants just starting out on solids – give them a spoon.

You will still need to feed them, but they can have a go too. Before the age of one, this should have progressed to you ‘preloading’ a spoon and giving them a selection of finger foods too. After 1 year of age they should be fully feeding themselves.

Giving children autonomy of how much goes into their mouth actually helps them eat more.

3. Take back control of what is being served

You are not a restaurant. There is no menu to choose from.

Individual families members do not get to place orders for dinner time and have their own meals served.

So the third change you need to make is to feed the same meal to every family member.

Exceptions being infants, and teething or sick children – they may need variations of the family meal.

Do think about what you are serving and be kind though. Make sure the majority of foods on your child’s plate are ones they are comfortable with. We call these ‘safe’ foods.

Children are far more likely to eat new (or abandoned) foods if it is paired with something they enjoy. Just make sure when your child dives into their ‘favourite’ foods you do not top them up. If they are finished and there are still other foods on their plate, there are no top ups until everything is eaten (within reason).

4. Avoid bribing or rewarding with food

We need to think about is whether this short term solution is actually doing any good in the medium to long term. This goes back to the first point. Are we actually motivated to make a change?

We give our child a treat to keep them quiet whilst we race around the supermarket. The next time we go they are ready, in the carpark, screaming the place down.

They now know they can demand unhealthy food from you by changing their behaviour. This will soon translate to the dinner table – why can’t we demand these ‘treat’ foods here as well?

Likewise with the ‘eat your bean and you can have dessert’….usually turns into ‘ok lick the tip of your bean and you can have dessert’. Then finally ‘oh look you allowed the bean to be on your plate – here is your dessert’.

If they are hungry enough for dessert – they should have finished dinner. Very simple.

So how do you motivate positive behaviour and show appreciation to your children?

Time and play based rewarding.

Time based rewards are activities with you. Going to the park, playing outside with you, setting up an obstacle course together, going for a walk, going to the pools etc.

Play based rewards are activities they don’t get to do all the time that they really enjoy. Painting, getting some modelling clay to play with, making playdough, going to the park and kicking a ball around are all examples of play based rewards.

5. No negotiations at the dinner table

Serve everyone the same meal. Make it clear there will be no substituting, no dessert rewards, no extras if other foods are still uneaten – then step back and allow what will be, be.

What this means is you can sit back and enjoy your own dinner with your child. Ignore negative behaviour – the food thrown on the floor can stay on the floor until it is clean up time. Ignore requests for different meals.

If a full blown meltdown takes place – simply remove the meal, present a glass of water and allow the child to calm down. Halve the meal and return one half to your child. Try again.

It can take 10 – 15 times of a child seeing a food before they will even try it. It can be a further seven times before they will enjoy that food.

If your child tries something new, calmly wait for them to have a good go of it, then give them a smile and a little clap and congratulate them. Then go back to eating. Acknowledge their success positively, but give them space.

So now you know the psychology of picky eaters

Good luck!

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