Fussy eaters: Helping families struggling with meal times

Meal times are portrayed as being the cornerstone of family life and parents often feel a lot of pressure to make these a happy and positive experience. Yet reality is often far from this ideal, with so many parents struggling to manage a fussy eater. Given that meal and snack times occur 5 times a day, depending on the age of the child, this can feel like a constant struggle. We are also bombarded with information about the importance of children getting a healthy balanced diet. These pressures combined can make managing a fussy eater stressful for parents and children alike, and often this stress only serves to exacerbate the problem.

Understanding the various psychological and emotional factors underpinning fussy eating are essential in order to effectively address this problem. For example, research has shown that some children who are fussy eaters may be overwhelmed by the appearance, texture, and even smell of new foods. Others may have experienced a traumatic event around food, such as a choking incident, which has caused them to fear unfamiliar foods. To address these issues a clinical psychologist provides treatment that works to help children decrease anxiety associated with food. An effective method to do this is called exposure, which introduces foods to children in a fun and gradual manner, while also working with parents to monitor their own reactions to mealtime stress.

As a clinical psychologist with a special interest in helping families with fussy eating I have seen a wide range in the severity of this problem. Whilst some children present as picky eaters, who eat a decreased range or variety of foods and are resistant to trying new foods, other children are what American psychologist and feeding specialist Dr. Kay Toomey refers to as Problem Feeders. These kids limit themselves to ever decreasing numbers of foods, often have specific sensory or developmental challenges, and may require multi-disciplinary input to address these issues.

In both cases, it is important for parents to be prepared to adjust their expectations and focus on their role in what Ellen Satter has described as the parent-child feeding relationship. That is, the preparation of healthy, pleasant foods, modelling good feeding behaviours, and exposing children to new foods in a positive and reinforcing manner, without pressure. If you need guidance in developing your parent-child feeding relationship a psychologist can provide both theoretical and practical help. I use real meals during my sessions to demonstrate the desired approach and allow you to practice with my assistance. If your child has a limited range of foods, and mealtimes are a persistent source of stress, it may be helpful to speak with your GP about an appropriate referral.

Tom Morley