Food Refusal is a normal developmental phase of early childhood which peaks around 18 months, and called the neo-phobic phase. Most children go through this fussy phase; often refusing to try new foods and foods they previously enjoyed. It starts as early as 1 year and can continue until after starting primary school. Some children’s diets become quite limited and this is particularly true for prolonged or extreme food refusal. Tantrums and unwanted behaviour develop into meal-time battles, with tired and busy parents giving in to the persistent demands of their toddler. Managing this with consistent messages about when and what food is offered; letting the child decide how much to eat is tricky, but can help to reduce tension. Infants who have been exposed to a wide range of foods during the weaning window (around 6-12 months of age) are more likely to experience a shorter neo-phobic phase.
Some children can be wary of trying new foods. From around 3 years, children become increasingly aware of distaste, disgust and fears of contamination and often prefer to have their food separated on their plate. This behaviour diminishes over time, helped by eating with family and other adults and/or children.
Children learn by copying and so showing children, by what you do as parents, lets them see what a balanced diet is. Eating as a family as often as possible is the best way to do this. Try to be consistent with messages about eating behaviour and create a structure around mealtimes with planned snacks and drinks. Getting children involved in whatever way you can in shopping, preparing food and at mealtimes is a good way to educate them into this daily activity. Fussy eating can be made more of a problem when more attention is given to a child who is refusing food than when they are eating well. Tops tips include:
- Do give them a small portion – they can always have a second helping if hungry
- Do provide familiar foods as well as new foods on their plate
- Do provide dessert following the main meal – as another opportunity to provide nutrition and not as a reward
- Do take away any distractions during the meal, switch off TV, toys, books, iPads away from the table
- Recent drinks as milk, juices or squash can reduce appetite before a meal
- Tired, distracted, anxious or unwell children usually have a poor appetite