There's more to fussy eating than just food

Fussy eaters: How French schools transform fussy eaters.
Fussy eaters: How French schools transform fussy eaters. Photo: Getty Images

As parents of fussy eaters would know, getting kids to eat isn't that simple.

Solutions can range from leaving the room, to the firm, "it's this or nothing" tactic and more. 

A recent study, published in the Journal of Sensory Studies, found this is because fussy eaters aren't all the same. 

"Picky eating is neither defined nor experienced in the same way by every parent," the study says.

Instead, co-author Sharon M. Donovan, a nutrition professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign says, four broad and overlapping categories could be used by parents to define fussy eaters.

Reporting on the study, Scientific American writes: "Knowing which category a child falls into may help parents develop constructive responses."

The study involved 170 two and four-year-olds to investigate parents' opinions of fussy eaters.

Researchers revealed four "segments" for fussy eaters based on certain behaviours: The sensory dependent (children prefer food based on texture and appearance), the general perfectionist (only eats food prepared a certain way), the behavioural responders (will cringe, cry or gag after seeing or eating certain foods) and the preferential eaters (won't try new foods).

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Interestingly, the study says, "Picky eating is not only defined by the food the child eats, but also by the child's overall behaviours and attitudes toward mealtime," both before and after.

Kate Di Prima, Accredited Practising Dietitian and Spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, says fussy eating could be caused by a number of things.

"It could be behavioural, because they are not hungry or they have missed their appetite cues, they left it too long and they are just tired," says Di Prima. 

Also children who have failed to progress from blended food, "so they spit things out and parents go they don't like meat and vegetables," but really they just don't have the power to chew. 

It could also be psychological.

"They could be on the spectrum where they don't like things touching or any sort of slimy, textual, liquidy types of food," says Di Prima. 

The segments identified in the study could potentially be used to develop appropriate strategies for the different behaviours associated with fussy eating.  

Though the study helps to investigate the types of picky eating, Di Prima, co-author of More Peas Please: Solutions for feeding fussy eaters, does have some tips for parents.

Sensory dependent

Di Prima says try to balance their diets and fill in the nutritional gaps using foods that aren't going to over sensitise their palates.

"They may not like fruits and vegetables in their whole forms if you mix them into yogurts and things that are more bland it dulls down their taste," she said.

General perfectionist

"I see a lot of children who have cereal with milk on the side and they won't mix it as they get older you can start sort of start discussing this with them," says Di Prima.

"That's our role (dietician) to the balance the diet while working on the behaviours, finding something they are comfortable with as a bridging flavour." For example, if they like vegemite you could mix it with cream cheese and use it as a sauce to bridge to new foods.

Behavioural responders

Gagging is often because they have an over-sensitive gag reflex, or "sometimes they get themselves so worked up because they are traumatised by the food," says Di Prima.

"To introduce new foods for those gaggers never do it during meal time." Instead try a non-threatening way, like in a park.

Preferential eaters

Di Prima recommends the following six steps for trying something new.

Having it on their plate is step one. Step two is holding it in their hand, step three is bringing it up to their nose to smell it or kiss it for the little ones, and step four is holding it in their front teeth, five is putting it in their back teeth and six is to chomp down.