How can I best tackle fussy eating?

fussyeating Jan 15, 2021

Fussy eating is best-managed through food experimentation, patience and showing compassion.  It's quite common for those in early childhood, but it can also extend into adulthood. 

Fussy eating is described as a pattern of eating that is quite selective and restrictive in nature. People may avoid certain foods due to taste, texture, smell, sight and fear. It can be related to the cognitive development of a person and their willingness to try new foods and the psychological aspect of food associations. Today, we will identify what can contribute to fussy eating in children and adults, and how to overcome this.  


The role of genes:

There are specific genes or gene variants that can affect people’s taste preferences. For instance, having the GLUT-2 gene gives people a preference for sweeter foods. In some cases, this may explain why people prefer sweet over savoury foods. Additionally, some people describe themselves as “super-tasters” due to being sensitive to bitter like foods. For instance, “super-tasters” sometimes report that coriander has a soapy taste (hence the whole “ban coriander’ movement).


Fussy eating in children: 

As terrible as it sounds, children love attention. The second we create an issue out of fussy eating, the attention is on them. Therefore, we want to mitigate any unnecessary drama and avoid family conflict around picky eating. Instead, it is more beneficial to develop a supportive environment for the child to play and taste different food types. A child is not going to love unfamiliar food straight away. It is a process which takes time and patience. It is also important to note that children’s tastebuds are still developing, so they may be more sensitive to varying food tastes and textures.  

Some children do have taste food aversions associated with specific disorders (e.g., autism). Increasing food variety and managing the condition need to be balanced out. We want to support healthy growth and development without having a detrimental impact on a child’s mental health. To determine whether a child has a real food aversion, we need to analyse their eating habits at different meal times. Is the child able to eat particular foods with certain people and not others? Or are they able to eat in a different environment, e.g. school? If the answer is ‘yes’ the child is likely to be a fussy eater, looking for a reaction. This is where parents need to be most careful with how they tackle the issue.

What if my child starts to starve?

A hungry child, or a hungry human being in general, won’t starve. A child can go to bed without eating and make up for it the next day. They may eat more food later in the day, to bridge a missed meal. If the child doesn’t eat for more than a day, something could be wrong, and further investigations need to be undertaken.


Fussy eating in adults:

Fussy eating in the adult cohort can be more challenging to manage, as food habits are more deeply rooted. That’s not to say that people cannot change, it’s just more challenging to do so. In some cases, psychological support may be beneficial to challenge specific thoughts around food.  Below are some strategies to increase food variety for both adults and children.


 Strategies to increase food variety:

  1. Introducing food in a familiar way. If somebody doesn’t like zucchini, you’re not going to get them to gnaw on the vegetable. Instead, it’s more effective to mask the zucchini flavour within a meal. This can be done through stir-fries, casseroles, curries and pasta meals.
  2. Pair familiar foods with unfamiliar foods. For instance, if someone doesn’t like strawberries, mix them through a fruit salad.
  3. Repeatedly expose the same distasted food. Taste preferences can evolve and develop over time.
  4. Model good food behaviour. This is particularly relevant for when adults are trying to battle fussy eating in children. Adults should sit with the kids, eat the same foods, smile and comment on how tasty the meal is.


The role of a dietitian:

When it comes to fussy eating, dietitians can help to a degree. However, people cannot expect to walk out of a consult immediately loving fruits, vegetables, and salads. It takes time and a willingness to try undesirable foods. Dietitians can help set realistic expectations for you and your child regarding what foods to try and strategies to create a supportive environment.

When it comes to enjoying food, 30% is about exposure, and 70% is about our inherent taste preferences. Although we can condition our taste buds. For instance, when we avoid adding salt to our food, we become more sensitive. The same applies to when we limit sugar. People report that food they once tolerated, becomes sickly sweet after a ’sugar-free’ period.

At the end of the day, it comes down to taking a leap of faith. The more foods we try, the more our body will be likely to accept them. If you'd like some assistance with determining personalised strategies to manage fussy eating, book a consult at CQ Nutrition. 


Here is a link to book in with one of our expert dietitians at any of our locations https://www.cqnutrition.com.au/booking/ 

Want an online consultation? Book in on my calendar and in comments write online: https://bit.ly/AnnieROK 

Written by Annabel Johnston, BAppSc&MDietPrac & GCertDiabSt


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