Monday, 15 January 2018

Top Ten Tips for Sensory Issues and Fussy Eating Phases


Boy with Bread SticksOriginally posted in 2014, this is one of the posts I get asked about most often. Since I wrote it, I've found out a lot more about the sensory issues that can affect children and have come to realise that, regardless of where, if at all, they land on the autism spectrum, or what other issues they may have, they can still feel anxious around food, so it's really important not to make it worse. As I mentioned, this post was originally written some time ago, before I was as aware of sensory issues as I am now. I've updated it a bit, but, whether it turns out to be part of a wider issue, or simply a phase, I hope these tips, from myself and other bloggers, will help.


I've always been a bit on the fence when it comes to the nature/nurture debate. You know, how much of our children's traits and behaviours are down to upbringing, and how much we can blame on their dad. My first real test, though, came when my son first developed an opinion. I had always been very keen for him to sample as many different tastes as possible, so that he had the best chance of being open to new tastes as he got older. I did exactly the same with my daughter and she ate pretty much anything throughout her childhood. I can't tell you how easy I had it with my daughter (I only realise this now)! From a young age, my son would have a little of what we had; stir fry, vegetable sticks, anything colourful, and it was always reassuring to see him eating well. Then, it happened.Shortly after starting school, he began to reject certain foods, until, at one stage, he would 'only eat' a handful of barely nutritious convenience foods. To begin with, I was not concerned. I have seen lots of parents go through this situation and handle it in a number of ways, with varying success rates. I also spoke to some 'grown ups' I know, who are self-confessed fussy eaters, even as adults, and asked if they felt their parents response could have helped them.

Tina, from Trials and Tribulations of a Brummie Mummy, writes; "It was my parents making me fussy, by forcing me to eat things I didn't like. Now, as a parent, I never force the kids to eat anything they don't like, but they are only alowed an apple if they don't."

Chrissie, from Manchester Flick Chick adds; "They did everything they could to encourage me to eat my meals when I was telling them I was too full. Turns out, I have a food intolerance to wheat and dairy which really bloats my tummy. They could have actually listened to me."


Laura, from Petit Moi - Big World, a reformed fussy eater, feels her parents really helped her in the long run; "She (mum) just let me decide; I ate sausage and chips for days and days in a row once. I came to veg and 'the good stuff' in my own time, without pressure and it worked really well!"

On the other hand...


Sarah-Jane, from Chasing the Donkey offered a totally different insight; "I have zero interest in fruit. My parents never encouraged me or tried to help me eat it and just let me not eat it. I am sure that is why the texture of most fruit has me gagging. As my son gets older, I'll be sure to make it fun, and encourage him to try things."

So, as is often the case with parenting issues, it seems there's no right or wrong answer, but listening to your children seems to play an important part. The adults I interviewed all spoke of the issues they face now, in restaurants, at parties, on holiday. Embarrassment and fear of going to unknown food environments and anxious feelings at the thought of family occasions, were the main theme of many of the comments. This is clearly a difficult issue for many people, and even at a young age, there may be more to this than just the nutrition perspective.

I do want to mention one little-known condition that I believe can play a part in some children's food issues. Several of my contributors, spoke of being particularly put off by different textures and even smells. It's recently been suggested that around 25% of the population could be Supertasters, who have heightened oral sensations to food and drink, due to over-enthusiastic tastebuds. The result being that anything beyond the bland is magnified, causing unpleasantly strong tastes and sensations. You can read more about the condition in this related article.


With my own son, I was fairly confident of one thing, which is that the majority of children will go through a 'fussy eating' phase at some stage in their formative years. I also felt that drawing attention to it could actually make it worse. Based on the, 'any attention is good attention' philosophy, I felt it was best ignored. So that's exactly what I did. I knew he had the capacity to enjoy a variety of different tastes and textures, so when he refused, I simply let him have the small variety of foods he would eat, hoping he would get bored. But he didn't. I think it was partly laziness, because all his choices involved very little cutting or even chewing! Scrambled egg, hot dogs, meatballs, occasionally pizza. The crunch (sorry!) came when he developed an intolerance to egg. This was really his main source of nutrients, so I started to become concerned about his health. The 'fussy phase' had been going on too long and was running the risk of developing from a phase, into a way of life. So I needed to take action. What follows are my tips to get your fussy eater eating. I can't guarantee they will work for everyone, but in a couple of months, my sons recipe repertoire has increased hugely, and his attitude to food has changed too.


1. Stay Calm. Children will quickly pick up on your anxiety, and this can affect how they view mealtimes, so keep the situation relaxed and positive. Praise is important, even for trying just a small amount of something new, but I have had the most success from playing down the whole experience. Food on plate, plate on table, and leave them to get on with it, whilst you eat yours.

2. Eat Meals Together. I realise this isn't always possible, but eating meals together allows you to expose your child to a wealth of tastes and smells in a natural, unpressured environment. He may think he only wants to eat one bland item, but seeing you eating something that smells or looks interesting, may pique his curiousity. I don't think there's any harm in suggesting he tries a little off your plate either. This was how I discovered that my 'fussy eater's' favourite food is curry!

3. Be Positive! Always try to talk about foods in a positive way, even if it's something you don't like. There is no harm in explaining that everyone is different and we all have different tastes. He may turn out to like things that you don't, but who cares, as long as he's eating?!

4. Make a Start. Write a list of all the foods your child does enjoy and will happily eat. Sometimes it's surprising how many different food types will feature and it gives you a good starting point to build on. You can sometimes find foods with a similar texture, taste or even colour, that might expand the menu and increase your child's confidence.

5. Get Children Involved. I'm a big advocate for getting children involved in cooking from an early age. Not just cakes and biscuits (although, there's always time for cakes in our house!) but also, simple meal projects. In our recipe files, there are some suggestions for easy recipes, featuring just a few ingredients, that children can play a part in. This helps them develop an interest in food and who wouldn't want to taste their own creation?!


6. Communicate. Make talking about food part of daily life. My son and I have had discussions about what puts him off certain foods and what appeals to him, as part of normal conversation. This helps me choose foods for him to try that won't be instantly rejected, but also helps him be reassured that his opinions are respected and valued, building trust, so that he is more inclined to take my suggestions on board when it comes to new ideas. This is where sensory issues come in. Finding out why a child doesn't like something can really help by ruling out certain foods and increasing others. Also, can you change the way you cook it? If it's a texture issue, maybe increasing the cooking time a little for veg, or blending soups and stews, may help. 

7. Be Honest! This is a subject of much debate, but in my experience, honesty is key. I feel, that if you are honest with your child (for example; not telling them that all meat is chicken, because you know they will eat chicken), they will be more likely in the long run to trust you and therefore be open to your suggestions on new food choices to try.

8. 'Try Something New' Stickers! In The 99p Store, I bought a pack of stickers with different faces on. Cartoony emoticons, really. If he tries something new, he gets a sticker. The best part is, he can choose a face to match how he felt about the new taste, which seems to be a fun incentive! If this doesn't appeal, you can obviously choose stickers of your child's favourite characters, or whatever appeals to them. But, it is a simple reward scheme that gives children a sense of achievement and a positive spin on a new taste experiences.

9. Eat the Rainbow! I am not sure where I originally heard about this idea, but the basic premise is that you challenge yourself to eat a piece of fruit or veg containing every colour of the rainbow. For some reason this idea really sparked the imagination and my son was very keen to find new fruits and vegetables to complete his quota! Obviously you can't really do this every day, but the idea is to encourage the child to try as many different tastes as possible, and to make it fun along the way. 

10. What Will Be, Will Be. To illustrate my final point, I would like to leave the last quote to sixteen year old Darren, who, when asked by his mother about her contribution to his eating habits, had this to say; "Nothing you lot could've done would've made any difference. Think of the one food you really hate, something that the smell and texture just turns your stomach, and ask yourself if there is any way someone could encourage you to eat that and be happy about it?" In some cases, nothing you do will make any difference and your child may just enjoy a limited number of foods. In which case, constant focus on food may just make them more anxious and unhappy. So, if nothing seems to work, give it time. Do your best to include the 'good foods' they will eat and hope they come around in their own time. Our tastes change a lot as we get older and, with the right amount of patience, there's every possibility they will express an interest in new foods as they get older and see their friends eating different things. But, if they don't, they don't. Provided they are healthy, there is really no point making them feel any worse about it.

If you have had your own experience of challenging eating situations, either your own or your children's, we would love to hear your comments. Thanks for reading and I hope I've helped, or at least reassured a little!

Apple Photo by Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash

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Tips for Children's Food Issues

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30 comments

T Bellew said...

My youngest is the pickiest eater and I get her to help with preparing her food, this helped a bit till I got her to help to do everyone's meal, and making treats for after dinner, but only if she ate it all. That was the best thing I ever did!! x

manchesterflickchick said...

These are such great points of action you have come up with. You're right, it shouldn't get turned into a battle and my Mum drawing funny faces on food with HP Sauce always helped. I still have loads of it on certain 'weird' textured food, haha!

Orli D said...

That is such a great post, filled with so many fantastic advice and tips. I have a very fussy 5 years old, and we have been working with him for so long on learning and agreeing to just try. We never force him to eat anything (except for a teaspoon of salad) but we do want him to try.
Anyway. I really loved your post.

Jen Walshaw said...

Great tips, thankfully both of mine are eaters, I would be beside myself if they were fussy

Agata Pokutycka said...

We try to cheat a bit - one of our kids hates bananas, but she is happy to eat banana chips, which are 98% dry bananas; same with peas - can not stand them but happy to eat green pea snacks which again are over 95% peas... we try to go around our fussy eaters

Damson Lane said...

We are just entering the fussy stage so these tips are very helpful. Thanks

Jenny said...

My daughter is a bit fussy but I try not to give in. Hopefully it's something she'll grow out of.

SJ Begonja said...

Thanks for including my insight. I was so happy to see some great tips, I worry I'll need them with my growing son. Hopefully not though :)

Mellissa Williams said...

My son was picky when he was younger. He is much better now. Kids do grow out of some of the pickyness. If kids don't like veg, offer them fruit. They won't starve. If worried get them to take a vitamin supplement.

Charly Dove said...

Such great tips there and always good to stay relaxed about it I feel. Our toddler has always eaten everything put in front of her although now she's being a little choosy!

Vicky Wombwell Kuhn said...

Thank you for sharing these. I have a very fussy fiancee - so some of these strategies should come in very handy :-)

Pinkoddy said...

These are great tips. I have to look at textures, smell and temperature of my son's food (he's a sensory seeker). We made a list and was surprised at how much was on it as it didn't seem like he was eating much of a variety.

Sarah-Louise Bailey said...

Some great tips - I don't have kids but have known of some fussy eaters if I ever hear anyone saying anything again I'll pop them this way :) x

Happy Homebird said...

Thank you for the tips. My son has autism and is very fussy so whether this is a sensory thing or not I don't know. He eats with us at the table and quite often mooches off your plate which is great as then he will try something new. Otherwise it chicken nuggets, sausages, pizza - repeat, repeat :)

fritha strickland said...

some great tips, thank you! x

Kara Guppy said...

Great tips!!

AMummyToo said...

Good tips - we've never made a big deal of the kids' fussy stages and they always pass eventually. We'll just be eating together at the table and suddenly, oh look, she's eating salad! :)

Anonymous said...

IM a fussy eater and don't want my son to be the same. It is so hard when your so fussy yourself as to what to make, and then if he doesn't eat it, then it goes in the bin. I find meal times stressful and if i make him something different to me, he wants mine! At my wits end.

Jonathan Gutteridge said...

Great tips here. Staying Calm is so important as your child really can pick up on changes in your personality like that

Talya said...

Some fab tips here - fussy eating can be the undoing of you I am not the greatest at staying calm and am still working on it!

Laura - Dear Bear and Beany said...

My youngest is a fussy eater, it has got better the last few months and we continue to work on it!

Dean B said...

I'm learning how to stay calm now and not to "nag" her about eating or finishing her food. I read somewhere that "nagging" may cause anxiety even food anxiety as they grow older. Wouldn't want that :(

Newcastle Family Life said...

My 4-year-old daughter is such a fussy eater, she has been such hard work with food since we started weaning her at 6 months old. She lived on Cheese, bread, Pasta, chicken and sweetcorn for ages as they were her 'safe foods'. We found out that her iron was low and over the past year she had amazed us with her eating, she even eats school lunches now. She still has some problems and refuses to eat anything red or most kinds of food in sauce, although she recently discovered she likes curry. These are great tips, I wish I had read this a few years ago as I was lost on what to do when she wouldn't eat much x

Kara Guppy said...

As a baby Isaac ate anything put in front home but he got fussier and fussier. Thankfully he is starting to experiment with food again and although he is a lot better he can still be fusyy!

Life Unexpected said...

I really love your tips. I'm definitely going to implement some of them. My daughter has turned into such a fussy eater. We don't mind if she doesn't finish her dinner, but if she doesn't want to eat it and still says she's hungry, we always offer her one other healthy option. If she still says no, then she just has to go hungry. Not the greatest way to deal with it, but it works for us. x

Clairejustine said...

These are great tips. I like the getting children involved in cooking tip. My children love making things then eating the as soon as they are finished :)

Stephanie Moore said...

Great tips, mine have been really good with food and I think it's been because we ate together and was relaxed about food

Kate said...

I can't tell you how helpful this post is! My toddler will eat literally anything, he's never refused food in his entire life - my 5-year old is another story! He is picky but in a very odd way; he won't touch things like pasta or pizza, but lives off fruit, veggies, and grilled chicken or fish. He hates sugar and sweets, and won't have anything to do with sauces of any kind. This means his diet is actually quite healthy, if rather boring, but it makes eating out really difficult. We've had so many meals out where I've either begged and bribed him to eat, or gotten angry or upset until he finally caved and ate a bite or two - it makes meal times miserable! I'm going to try your suggestions and see if things can be improved!

Grant R said...

These tips all ring true. We always eat together, but don't always eat the same thing. Our two young kids have very different attitudes. The youngest loves fruit and veg and will always try new food, while the other one would eat chicken nuggets for dinner every day if she had the choice! And yet, she likes marmite......

Anonymous said...

My heart goes out to you, my youngest has always eaten everything, my 18yr old eats much the same way as your child and always has. We set a rule about trying something new every week or 4 over the years and this way we broadened her menu a little. Now everyone just accepts that this is the way she is and she is now a very healthy young lady working in childcare and studying for a qualification in this area. We are very proud of her, but it didn't make those childhood meal times any easier and even now, social events are not often centred around going out for a meal. All I can say is persevere, but relax. She describes being encouraged to eat one of her no-go foods as like being on the tv show where they have to eat bugs! She still has a limited diet but has turned out just fine thank you. Xx

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