toddler refusing to eat

Is my child’s fussy eating just a phase?

Many parents and caregivers worry about their child eating and enjoying a variety of healthy foods. They are unsure how best to handle the challenges of their children’s eating. 

The first 3-4 years of life are really important to set the foundation for long-term eating throughout life.  This is particularly with regard to how varied a child’s diet is: if it is limited in these first years, it will probably continue to remain the same.   

Let’s start with two popular beliefs around fussy eating:  

1 It is a ‘normal phase’ for many toddlers, for example, around 18 months toddlers naturally become more wary about eating certain foods. In addition toddlers are becoming more independent and may show this by refusing to eat foods they happily ate before, such as porridge. While it is a phase for many toddlers, a significant percentage doesn’t grow out of fussy eating. What starts out as a phase can quite easily develop into a more long-term habit, often without us realising it.

2 S/he will outgrow fussy eating.  Increasingly more and more children don’t outgrow their eating habits without some change of approach. This happens for many reasons including when we eat a limited number of foods, we often eat these foods very frequently. We can therefore get so tired of eating the same foods, that we want to stop eating the foods altogether. This may explain why some children refuse to eat foods that they previously liked, for example, some vegetables. 

If your child does not usually eat a healthy, balanced or varied diet and you have tried different approaches, you may wonder should you seek expert help. Here are some reasons to seek help:

  • Your child has experienced weight loss or isn’t growing. This is a major concern. Of course multitude causes can be at play here and medical factors need to be investigated or ruled out. Then a limited diet can be explored.
  • Eats a limited range of foods; or their range of foods is getting less over time
  • An unbalanced diet, often eating lots of carbohydrates and very little or any of other food groups including vegetables.
  • Strong likes or dislikes for foods including certain textures or foods not touching.
  • Often unwilling to try other foods and may want to eat only their favourite foods.
  • Often eats different foods from the rest of the family. 
  • May not like small changes in their food such as a different brand to usual.

One simple way of determining if your child has a varied diet is to write down everything they eat for a few days. Then categorise each food according to the four main food groups, (carbohydrates, proteins, fruit and vegetables). Sometimes this can be very revealing for example, you may realise that your child’s diet is dominated by various forms of carbohydrates (such as pasta, cereal and bread) or certain textures such as dry, crunchy foods.  

You may benefit from expert support, if any of the following apply:

  • Meal times are stressful.
  • You would like to be proactive, to avoid eating getting worse.
  • You are unsure how best to handle a child’s eating.

Finally, the longer unhealthy eating habits continue, the more challenging it can be to turn around so seeking expert help sooner rather than later may be best.

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