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A Paediatric Dietitian’s Guide to Navigating a Fussy Eater

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What's normal, when to seek help, and how to take on fussiness.

As parents, feeding our children is one of our fundamental roles. So when our kids have hearty appetites for a range of healthy foods, it feels as if they are learning and growing before our eyes. Conversely, when they won’t eat, we worry that they won’t develop normally. Cue parent guilt and panic. As they get older, this food rejection can manifest as eating something one day then hating it the next, or refusing a whole meal because they’ve pulled out the tiniest piece of onion. This small realm of parenting hell is known as fussy eating. It’s tough, and very common. To determine exactly what’s normal, how to tackle it, and when to seek help, Shae Rickards, a paediatric dietitian and nutrition manager at Bellamy’s Organic, answered all our questions.

What, exactly, qualifies as fussy eating?

“A fussy eater is defined as a child who refuses to try a new food at least 50 percent of the time. Almost half of all children will go through a fussy eating period in the early years,” says Rickards. More importantly, there’s a very good reason for it. “It’s normal for children to be uncertain of new tastes and textures. It's an evolutionary mechanism designed to keep us safe from danger. Fussy eating is also part of children’s development. It’s a way of exploring their environment and asserting their independence.”

What are some of the reasons they become more fussy with food?

“Growth slows in the second year of life so, because of this, their appetites go up and down depending on how much they’re growing and how active they are,” says Rickards. “It can also be common for children to refuse food if they have been drinking too much milk, or their mood – for instance when feeling tired, sick or upset, their activity pattern has changed, or are illness.” Rickards adds that we should trust their intuitions. “Healthy, typically developing children will never voluntarily starve themselves, even though sometimes it seems as though they are eating very little.”

How do you know if your child’s eating is within the realm of normal behaviour or if it is a problem?

“Even if your child is a fussy eater, his or her growth is considered ‘normal’ if two things are happening. First, they meet their age and sex weight centile on the growth chart in their child health book and are gaining weight at the expected rate. Remember, this is best assessed using a few measurements over time, not just one. Secondly, they are reaching their developmental milestones,” recommends Rickards. “It’s very common for children to be growing well but to simply be fussy! Remember a healthy child will never go hungry, and if they are energetic enough and thriving, they’re likely eating enough.”

If your baby screws up their face at certain foods, does it mean they don't like it?

“As new flavours and tastes are introduced, it is not unusual for babies to display an element of surprise or even disgust particularly with sour and bitter flavours. This is normal. It is important to focus on the infant’s willingness to continue eating rather than their facial expressions. It is also important to not react negatively, make fun of or show disappointment as these can reinforce undesired behaviour or put him off trying again. So, the next time he screws his nose up at broccoli, don’t make a fuss. Exposure and repetition are the keys to healthy eating preferences and habits.”

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