A recent study by the National Academy of Sciences claims that babies and children as young as one learn eating habits from what they see happening during mealtimes.
This includes associations with which foods taste good, as well as the patterns of the immediate family's eating habbits too. According to this study, the youngest of children can develop negative eating habits based on what they see around them.
The last few weeks at Kids on Track, fussy eating and how to best manage it has been the order of the day. It seems that this issue is affecting children of all ages, abilities and for different reasons, and the stress it places on families when it comes to mealtime dynamics is real and can be intense.
Most adults have foods, flavours and textures that they prefer and can not abide and children/ teenagers also have taste buds and should be allowed to express preferences on occasion. Eating is a hugely sensory activity and so for some children when they are fussy, it is not so much about the taste as the overall sensory experience. This may be related to smell, texture, consistency or flavor, and can be a very powerful trigger to try and overcome.
However, for many of the parents we speak to at Kids On Track, the eating habits of their child causes huge anxiety worry that their child will end up starving or not eating a balanced diet. In reality, this is rarely the case. For most children, there will be forms of each food group that they will happily eat and depending on what else is happening in their lives, it can sometimes be easier to let them have what you know will keep them happy.
It is important that food times are set into the routine as early as possible, and that eating time is calm and positive. Ideally, mealtimes should happen around a table without screens and with other family members present. This not only takes the focus away from the food, but also allows children and teenagers to get familiar with the social aspect of mealtimes. Even when this isn't feasible, the focus at mealtimes should be moved away from how much / what variety of food has been eaten. There are times when the more attention that is paid to it, the more complex the issue becomes.
You may notice that similar to adults whose eating habits change when they are unwell or stressed, those of your children do as well. Food can become a tool of control particularly at times in their lives of changes; exams; or anxiety. However, if this happens on a regular basis, it may be a symptom of other problems. If it is fleeting, it can provide huge comfort to that child to feel that they are able to control something in their lives. If this is an issue with your child, it can be useful to allow them to help plan the menu, pack their own lunchbox or make themselves breakfast from a set shelf of options.
Finally, eating should be something that has positive associations for your child even if their diet consists of 10 ingredients. With eating disorders at an unprecedented level and starting young, it is important that your child isn't able to use food as a weapon even when they are very small. Ensure they are getting the nutrients they need in whichever way you can and avoid lengthy discussions about why they are fussy. In many cases, the more your fussy child picks up on your stress about the situation, the worse their relationship with food will become. It is therefore vital that the verbal and non verbal messages they receive from you about their eating habits are calm, neutral and matter of fact.
Food is necessary to fuel and hydrate the body and to allow it to grow, and a sophisticated palate isn't needed for that.