By working out what it is that your child finds off-putting about food, you can understand why she’s being picky. Then you can offer her foods that she actually wants to eat.
According to researchers from the University of Illinois, there may be good reasons why children can loathe the sight, smell, taste or texture of some foods.
‘Picky eating tends to peak around the age of two to three years old,’ says Professor Soo-Yeun Lee of the University of Illinois, who conducted the fussy-eating research.
‘There are a whole number of reasons why behaviours that are labelled “picky” crop up at this age. For example, some toddlers are still developing their oral skills, so they can find certain textures very hard to swallow. They’ll gag, and parents might see this as fussiness.’
Soo-Yeun’s research has found there are four major types of picky eaters.
Each type describes children with very different issues with food, which each need to be handled in different ways.
‘So, if you’re worried your child might be a picky eater, the first step to handling the situation is to find out what sort of eater she is,’ says Soo-Yeun.
Take our quiz to find out what sort of picky eater your child is, then read on below to find out how to help them.
According to our quiz, what sort of picky eater is your child?
A child who’s a sensory responder will have likes and dislikes based totally on the sensory qualities of a meal. So the food’s taste, texture and/or aroma, are critical to her.
A sensory responder tends to prefer hard and crunchy textures, and sweet or salty-tasting food.
But, depending on her personal preferences, she may turn up her nose at anything that smells too strong, such as garlic, sprouts, or pongy cheese.
She may also shun bitter tastes like broccoli, courgettes and lemon, and reject intense flavours like spices.
Sensory responders often dislike having foods that are mixed together (think casseroles or multi-ingredient pasta dishes) and they might well be very picky about the way their food is presented.
Accept her preferences
Working with your child is much more effective – and far easier – than trying to force her to do what you want.
If your child has a strong aversion to particular tastes, the first thing to do is to work out her pet hates. It may be bitter flavours, like green veg. It may be fatty flavours, such as lamb or ice cream. It may be complex, strong flavours that she finds overwhelming, like curry or rich casseroles.
Once you know what it is, find substitutes. For example, if she hates bitter flavours, stick to sweeter vegetables like peas, swede or sweetcorn. If fatty flavours are the problem, stay with leaner meats like chicken or turkey.
The principle works in exactly the same way with textures and smells. Do your detective work then eliminate the problem area from your child’s diet.
Heed your child’s preferences for having her food presented in a certain way too. So, if she hates two foods touching, go with it. Or if she’ll only eat veg if she’s got a sauce to dip it into, that’s fine.
There’s no need to turn these preferences into a battle for control. Remove the issue, whatever it might be, and your tot will gradually relax about food and become more confident about eating.
But this doesn’t mean cooking your child whatever she wants. ‘Give her a choice, such as if she wants pasta, rice or bread,’ says Soo-Yeun, ‘but don’t only cook whatever she demands, or she
won’t broaden her choices.’
Use pudding wisely
If your child likes sweet things, then you might find she’s more willing to experiment with different foods when it comes to pudding than for her main meal. So, get adventurous with your choices here. Roast a fig to go alongside her ice cream. Or sprinkle some cinnamon on her apple purée.
And don’t make puddings a reward. ‘If your child is only allowed dessert if she eats her main meal, you’ll make her crave sweet treats even more,’ says Soo-Yeun. ‘It’s counter-productive. And it just turns veg into a mechanism for gaining a pudding, rather than encouraging children to love veg for its own sake.’
If you’ve got a preferential eater on your hands, then you’ll be used to cooking the same meals every day.
These children are happy with what they know and they don’t like trying anything new.
They’ll often also hate the idea of trying dishes where different ingredients are mixed together, such as casseroles, shepherd’s pie or soup, or dishes with lots of flavours, such as curry or any pizza that isn’t plain old cheese and tomato.
She is also likely to prefer one food group overall: so she might be a chicken-fanatic, a pasta-addict, or a pea-lover.
Keep encouraging her
‘Research has shown that children often need eight to 10 exposures to a food before they start to like it,’ says Soo-Yeun.
‘This can be tricky if your child says she’s already tried something and didn’t like it. You can defuse that by calmly saying, “Well, you might like it today. Give it a smell, give it a lick, give it a bite, see what you think.” Don’t push her to finish the food, but praise her when she tries it.’
Model healthy eating
When you eat a food, you send an immediate and clear signal to your child that the food is trustworthy, and that will really help a preferential eater.
If your child is very particular about what she eats and how she eats, you probably have a general perfectionist.
This is the most common category and covers a range of food-related behaviour. Like sensory responders and preferential eaters, these children may reject a wide range of foods.
They often reject food that has a slimy, lumpy or slippery texture, such as cheese-based sauces, spinach and cottage cheese. They can also get picky about additional things, such as the way the food is laid out on the plate.
Another common behaviour amongst perfectionists is to prefer food that’s all the same colour. Think about your child’s favourite foods, and if they’re tomatoes, strawberries and red peppers, you might be on to something.
Get her involved
‘You can help your child become more familiar with different foods and give her ownership over her meals by getting her involved with the preparation,’ says Soo-Yeun.
‘She could wash vegetables, chop soft fruit and put the chunks in serving dishes. Or you could go one step further and get her involved with growing fruit and veg.’
Experiment with texture
Cook one food that your child likes in two or three different ways, and present it at the same meal. Roast carrots taste, smell and feel so different to boiled or steamed ones.
These children tend to prefer smooth or puréed foods, so a blender is your best friend.
For example, if you’re making spaghetti bolognese, once you have made the sauce, purée it so it is completely smooth. They also enjoy sweeter flavours, so a simple change, such as caramelising the onions well when you’re making the sauce, will help.
The tricky issue with these children is getting them to sit at the table in the first place.
Does your child refuse to come when you ask her, then cry or decide she has something better to do? And once you’ve coaxed her to the table, does she look at the food you’ve slaved over as though it’s roadkill-on-toast?
Behavioural responders may cringe, cry or gag at the sight of certain foods and pick over everything on the plate.
Your child’s eating habits are less about food choices and more about being in control of her food: perhaps she’s using meals as a way to assert control, or perhaps she’s just not interested in food and would prefer to play than eat.
Handing over some level of control will really help a behavioural responder.
‘Parents understand the importance of eating a balanced diet, and which foods are healthy,’ says Soo-Yeun. ‘And children understand when they’re hungry and when they’re full. So you should decide what foods to put in front of your child, but leave it to her to decide which ones to eat and how much to eat. This means your child is eating healthy food, but she is also being given control and ownership over it.’
Behavioural responders like to see what they’re eating, so can be put off by a sauce with unidentifiable lumps in it.
Avoid this by aiming for a Masterchef-inspired deconstructed meal and put the food into different serving bowls and let her help herself. If you’re making spaghetti bolognese, put pasta in one dish, cheese in another, and the sauce in another.
If you tend to add lots of different ingredients to your sauce, then separate a portion of sauce for her before you add the mushrooms and peppers. Your tot may only want cheese with her pasta, or just have sauce and cheese. Giving her control means she is more likely to eat something.
The one thing that will help all fussy eaters, is for you to start thinking more positively.
‘Parents often worry that picky eating will lead to malnutrition,’ says Soo-Yeun. ‘But that rarely occurs in developed countries like the UK. Young children are far more in touch with their body’s needs than we are. A young infant will call for food when she’s hungry and stop eating when she’s full.
‘But we lose those instincts as we grow up because we start eating when society expects us to: at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Instead of demanding that your child eats, encourage her to respond to her instincts. If she isn’t eating, or stops eating, ask, “Are you full?” And if she says, “Yes”, trust her.’