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Fussy eating: It’s not all about disliking peas

My whole life, I have disliked peas.  The smell, the taste, the texture. It’s all just so… yuck! I like most other food.  I just don’t like peas. Many a meal has been had with family and friends who would admonish: “Just eat the peas!  For goodness sake, they’re not poisonous”. Pushed them around on the plate, hid them in my mash, fed them to the dog – try as I might, I have never learnt to tolerate peas.

Not liking the odd thing here or there is not unusual though.  In fact, most people (especially children) have some sort of food dislike.  It is common for children to like something one day and then dislike it the next, to eat much the same thing or to change the type and amount of food they will eat from day to day, and even to refuse to try new foods.  The reason children do this is because food is exploration. Some days they want to explore more, some days less. You will notice this in their play as well. Growth, tiredness, activity level, and energy needs change on an almost daily basis.  

Usually, children will grow out of fussy eating as they get older.  They will broaden the types of foods they like and become more adventurous with exploring new foods.  In the meantime, if you have a fussy eater in the family, here are some ways you can help:  

Don’t go to war over peas: Reduce the stress and make mealtimes fun

The more my mother insisted on the peas, the less I wanted to eat them and the more upset we both would get.  Helping your child to try food is very much influenced by the eating environment. Reducing stress and making meals an enjoyable occasion can help.

Increase the joy

  • Make mealtimes happy and social.  Meals are a great time for a family to commune, chat, and laugh together.  For hundreds of years, people have come together over meals.  
  • Don’t fuss.  It is ok if food goes everywhere.  They’re kids. That is what they do.  Clean up can happen after meals. As a parent, you will have to learn be ok with this, though. Your kids can pick up on your stress and if you are worried about the mess, they will know.

Involvement

  • Healthy foods are often boring to kids.  Make food fun.  For example, cut food into interesting shapes, decorate the plate, make characters out of the food.  
  • Involve your kids in meal preparation, if you can.  It is so much fun to mix food in a bowl, wash food, and place food on plates.  It takes time, yes. The odd task here and there is exciting and broadens the meaning of food.
  • Choosing dinners.  Picking a recipe is fun for children and helps them feel involved in meals, rather than meals being a chore for them.

Structure is important – and that is not about how you place the peas

Kids like structure.  It helps them know what is expected, what is needed from them, what is safe, and what the day will bring.

  • Mealtimes need to be predictable, so have meals at (fairly) regular times during the day and across the week.  This helps kids know when it is mealtime and when it is playtime.  
  • Set a time limit for meals.  Roughly 20 minutes for children under 6.  If your child is struggling to eat, prolonging the suffering is only reinforcing the scariness of eating.  Of course, you don’t need to be too rigid about it. Clock watching is only going to increase stress.
  • What is not eaten at that time is taken away.  You will need to resist offering food in the meantime and before the next meal.  What you are aiming for here is predictability. We eat at these times. Your child’s hunger cues will regulate better and there will be less temptation for those in-between snacks, which fill kids up only temporarily.

To TV or not to TV?  For little kids, TV is a distraction.  Kids who get bored of food quickly will look for anything else to do, other than eat.  Leaving the TV off can help your child focus on mealtime.

Peas are not the only foods around: Variety is key

Eventually my mother ceased persisting with the peas. As she found out, there were plenty of other foods out there and I liked many of them. 

  • Offer variety. This gives your child autonomy and choice.  
  • Try keeping this to 2-3 things though, otherwise choice can become overwhelming and distracting.
  • They model you.  If you’re limiting your variety, your child is likely to do so too.
  • Let them see you trying new foods.
  • Options are great.  ‘Peas or Peas’ is not an option.  ‘Peas or Carrots’ is an option.

Reward and Praise

My mother could get me to eat a thousand peas when she praised me for my super pea-eating powers.  

  • Forcing a kid to eat is never a good idea.  It is stressful and results in making food (and you) really scary.  
  • Be realistic.  If your child is trying out a new food, they may only give it a sniff or a small taste, then back away.  This is ok. Praise this. Praise any approximation towards eating the food. Praise them for their bravery and adventuring. This helps them work towards eventually eating that new food.
  • Ignore the negativeReward and praise the positive.  Easy to say, without a plate of peas in front of me.  
  • Try to ignore the fussing as best you can.  If you give that too much attention, it can sometimes reinforce the fussing.  On the flip-side, if you praise even small efforts to eat, this will reinforce the effort.
  • Bribery does not work.  A chocolate for a plate of peas might get that one plate eaten, but it will do nothing for eating other plates of peas.  If you find yourself saying: “If you eat …. then you can have…”; this is a bribe. The eating is only contingent on the reward.  This will not lead to sustainable flexibility in eating and increases kids’ perceptions that eating is a chore. It can also reinforce the fussiness.

Planning on introducing new foods?

Here are some tips that might help:

  • Start small and work your way up.  Just a little taste of a new food to begin with.
  • Pair it with something familiar.  
  • Make it attractive and enticing e.g., different shapes and sizes each time you offer it.
  • Gentle prompting can be helpful: “give it a try.  It is yummy. You might find a new favourite food”.
  • Keep offering foods that were refused.  Eventually your child will probably try it.  They might just be working up the courage.  
  • Familiarity can often lead to liking.  Be prepared though, sometimes kids need to be offered a new food 15-20 times before they’ll even try it.
  • Praise any attempt to try the new food.  A kiss. A cuddle. Congratulate them for effort and for being adventurous.
  • Bring in the reinforcements.  Kids model other kids.  If other kids are having fun with food, so might your child.
  • If your child is looking at it like I used to look at peas, that’s ok.  Try again some other time.
  • Don’t force them to eat it.  If they don’t, that’s ok.  Thank them for trying and let them know they can try again some other time.
  • If you’re onto a winner, keep it in the eating repertoire.  

On a final note.  We all have foods that we don’t like.  I still don’t like peas. That’s ok. You might try a food 20 times with your child and they just keep refusing it.  It might just be one of those foods they will never like.

But let’s say, it is not just peas that are a problem, but any pea-like food item, or any food item made from peas; in fact, any green food item?  Then you’ve probably got something a bit more serious than fussy eating on your hands. This can lead to quite restrictive diets, which results in problems with development.  If this is the case, seek professional help. See your GP or paediatrician who can put you in touch with a dietitian and/or psychologist who can help with these sorts of problems.

Dr Kim Eaton

Clinical Psychologist

If you would like to learn more about supporting your child to address fussy eating, or if you think there is a more serious eating issue, book an appointment with Dr Kim Eaton, contact our friendly client relationship team or call 6143 4499. 

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