The answer is:
It depends entirely on how your react to it!
Let’s start with the science. There is no doubt that some children are prone to fussy eating more than others. It’s in the genes! Some may be programmed to be averse to or cautious about just one or two foods, some many more.
However – a HUGE however! – no matter where your child is on this spectrum, how you as a parent respond to your child when they start displaying fussy eating behaviour is the number one most important thing. It is this that determines whether a fussy eating problem sets in that make mealtimes stressful and worrying day in, day out – or whether you sail through their childhood with it barely affecting your life at all!
So, how should you react? To explain, we need to go on a journey inside a young child’s head …
Somewhere between 1 and 2 years old, your child starts to want to assert themselves. You know, the terrible twos, toddler tantrums … And suddenly, things that previously they would have quite happily and passively let you be in charge of (like which colour cup they drink out of, whether they go in the buggy or walk or which bedtime story they want), they want control over – or a major strop about! It’s a normal developmental stage.
Around this same time, they become old enough to realise that you really (really!) seem to care what and how much they eat. When they didn’t eat much pasta for dinner last night, for example – only because they weren’t that hungry – you pretended the fork was a plane flying towards their mouth. When they didn’t eat any broccoli – only because they didn’t fancy it as they’d already had it at nursery for lunch – you promised them three chocolate buttons if they ate it all.
Put these two things together and ‘ding’, sooner or later they are going to have a lightbulb moment:
The absolute easiest way for me to get power – as well as an awful lot of attention – is around food! they think. I have that one little hole in my face and only I can control what does and doesn’t go into it! Let the fun begin…
So maybe they love spaghetti bolognese but Let’s see what happens if I don’t touch it…Oh yes, she doesn’t like that! She’s scraping the sauce off the spaghetti. Or I like Marmite, but I prefer peanut butter. Let’s see if I can get her to make me that instead.
Yes, when fussy eating first emerges, it’s very rarely about the food itself. It’s about the power – and attention – that NOT eating something gets them!
So how you respond to this stage is vital! React the wrong way and the fussy eating will solidify and become a long-term thing. They – and you! – will start to believe that they genuinely don’t like the foods they’re rejecting. Before you know it, you’ll have a fussy 3,4,5, even 10 year old on your hands. It will not be a phase!
The secret is this: Don’t react at all!
Act as if you haven’t noticed what they are and aren’t eating and don’t mind either way – like water off a duck’s back. Say nothing. Don’t encourage, cajole, nag or bribe them to eat anything. Ever! Just keep serving the foods you want to serve and leave it entirely up to them what goes in their mouth. Don’t jump up and make them something else if they’re not eating it. Don’t cut off their egg white. Don’t pick bits of onion out of a pasta sauce. Don’t start serving their favourite foods and meals over and over again. Remember this rule:
You’re in charge of what to serve.
They’re in charge of whether to eat it.
Or as I like to say: DISH UP, SHUT UP!
Once there is zero power or attention to be gained by NOT eating something, there is way more pleasure to be had in eating it. So back off entirely and this fussy eating phase will fizzle out!
Even better, if you never ever encourage, cajole, nag or bribe them to eat in the first place, from weaning onwards, this phase is unlikely to emerge at all. Why? Because your child would have absolutely nothing to gain from it!