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Fussing about food: dealing with food rejection

In this video, Professor Karen Campbell provides practical advice and assistance to a parent whose child is rejecting their food.
KAREN CAMPBELL: One of my clients, Sarah’s, rung me this morning to say her little boy Archie is causing her a bit of grief. And it’s a really hard time being a young mum. So I’m going to just pop by and have a chat to her about some of the things that she might be able to do to make it a little bit easier with Archie so he’ll be a great eater for a long time to come.
SARAH: I’m really quite concerned about it. He’s well. He is growing well. But I’m worried he’s not getting enough nutrients from his main meal.
KAREN CAMPBELL:And you mentioned on the phone that he’s not eating his main meal.
SARAH: He very rarely will eat it. I’ll prepare healthy meals for him for his main meal. And he’s just fussing so much. He’s not interested in eating anything.
KAREN CAMPBELL: Pushing it away, that sort of thing?
SARAH: Cracking it.
KAREN CAMPBELL: Cracking it.
SARAH: I don’t want this meal.
KAREN CAMPBELL: Oh, how frustrating.
SARAH: Very. And I get anxious and worried that he’s not going to get enough food. So then I offer him something I know he will like, like a sweet dessert or mashed fruit.
KAREN CAMPBELL: And what does he do then?
SARAH: Which is healthy, but then– oh, custard, maybe, or a sweet yoghurt. Oh, loves it.
KAREN CAMPBELL: Loves it. So he gobbles it in.
SARAH: Oh, loves it. More. More.
KAREN CAMPBELL: So he’s a little bit hungry. Yeah.
SARAH: He’s hungry. He wants his food. But he wants the yummy stuff that he loves.
KAREN CAMPBELL: And so you’re feeling you need a bit of advice about how to encourage him to eat the meal that you’ve put that time into.
SARAH: Yeah. I put in a lot of effort. And I actually get a bit, oh, my, you’re not eating this beautiful food? You know? It’s so nutritious and healthy for him. And just some ideas on how I can get him to eat that food?
KAREN CAMPBELL: Well, look. The first thing is, what he’s doing is really, really normal.
KAREN CAMPBELL: I mean, he’s nine months old. He’s becoming more and more independent, as you know. So as soon as he started to crawl, he moved away from you a bit further, didn’t he?
SARAH: Yes. He’s kind of exploring his own world.
KAREN CAMPBELL: Yeah, becoming his own person. So this is very normal for children. And it’s very normal for children to be a bit manipulative, which doesn’t mean he’s being naughty. It just means he’s using his innate natural desire to get on with things.
KAREN CAMPBELL: If he thinks he can get away with something, without even thinking it through, he will. So what he’s getting away with at the moment is, by fussing, he’s making you provide something else that he knows he likes better. So he’s learning a bit of a habit here. If I don’t eat that, I get that.
KAREN CAMPBELL: And sometimes it’s good to think about when you were a kid and how you felt about things. So I’m going to give you a bit of a scenario.
SARAH: Yeah.
KAREN CAMPBELL: When you were little, so if you can remember back to, say, even four or five, if your mum gave you chicken, let’s say, for dinner, and you really wanted fish fingers, and you said, mama, I hate chicken. Yuck. I’m not eating this chicken. Go away. Take it away. I don’t want it. And your mum said, oh, Sarah, OK. Look, would you like some fish fingers? You’d say yes, of course. And what would you think?
SARAH: Well, I could have whatever I want when I want it.
KAREN CAMPBELL: Whenever you want it. OK. So there’s a very clear message. So as a parent, you feel you’re doing the right and the kind thing. However, there’s ramifications. There’s an outcome from that. So the opposite scenario would be mum gives you chicken and you wanted fish fingers. And you say, yuck, mum, I hate your chicken. I want fish fingers. And she says, Sarah, this is what we’re having for dinner tonight. This is our family meal. And you make a fuss. And you say I don’t want this. I don’t want this. I don’t want this. And she does nothing at all and continues to eat her dinner.
And to your surprise, she actually then removes your plate of dinner when the family has finished eating. Now what would you feel then?
SARAH: Oh. Hungry.
SARAH: Annoyed that I get what I wanted.
KAREN CAMPBELL: And you might make a real fuss. And you might try it again and again, and maybe even again. But eventually, what would you do?
SARAH: I’d eat.
KAREN CAMPBELL: Yeah. You’d stop. Because you weren’t getting the reward.
SARAH: I’d eat what I was offered first time. [INTERPOSING VOICES]
SARAH: Yeah. OK. I see.
KAREN CAMPBELL: So it’s a strategy. And it’s not just around food and eating. It’s around lots of things with kids. If you give in, they’ll take. And they’ll make a fuss when there did needn’t to be a fuss. And fussing around food’s a problem. Because it makes you stressed and crossed.
SARAH: Definitely.
KAREN CAMPBELL: And it often leads to using food you know they like as rewards. And often, the food’s actually not all that healthy. You mentioned yoghurts and custards. They’re good foods in and of themselves, but they don’t comprise a whole healthy diet.
KAREN CAMPBELL: Lots of people use sweet biscuits and cake because they know children will enjoy those. Again, it’s not going to make for a very good long term diet.

Children can exert enormous power over parents when they sense the stakes are high. This is, of course, the case when it comes to feeding young infants.

Many parents find the enjoyment and excitement associated with the early days of feeding their baby begins to disappear when their child starts to cry and fuss when being offered food. This shift in interest around food often reflects the baby’s growing independence.

Parents want their baby to eat and enjoy a wide range of foods, many of which they’ve taken a lot of time to prepare. Food made with love, cost and time is meant to be enjoyed, not spat out or cried over!

In this video, Karen discusses these issues with a parent who’s feeling frustrated and disappointed that her previously ‘good eater’ is now not enjoying mealtimes at all – unless, that is, she brings out the sweet custard!

The key messages of this video are:

  • Avoid engaging with your child when they don’t want to eat and, instead, allow them to decide when to eat (if at all) and how much they will eat.
  • The more you fuss and try to encourage your child to finish what you’ve offered, the more ammunition they have and, in turn, the more they will fuss. This outcome is stressful and upsetting, and it can be avoided.
  • The importance of not providing ‘back up’ options, which will usually be sweet. Remember that we’re programmed to enjoy sweet tastes and this is partly why babies enjoy breastmilk. However, if you offer sweet alternatives to the main offerings, you’ll soon find this becomes a focus for your baby.

Your task

Watch the video and, in the comments, share your thoughts about why some young children become fussy eaters and how this can be avoided.

  • If you have experienced a fussy child, what did you try to do to overcome it?
  • What advice were you given?
  • Did it work?
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