Fussy eating guide for children and teenagers

It's a huge problem for parents to get their kids to eat well. Quite often, at various stages of development, children will start to go off foods that they had previously eaten. It can often seem inevitable that the foods they tend to go off of are green and good for them.

But, problems can arise when children are only eating certain foods and their nutrient status becomes depleted.

There may be nutritional reasons for fussy eating and, if you address these, your child may start to eat better. Fussy eating can lead to a lack of nutrients, exacerbating the problem as well. It can lead to fatigue, low immunity, dental problems, obesity, eating disorders and other mental health problems.

Fussy child not eating dinner

Here are a few possible reasons children develop fussy eating and ways to help improve and increase their choice of foods.

Zinc deficiency

As a child has a more limited diet, they may start to develop deficiencies. Lack of zinc can lead to a loss of taste, smell and appetite. Furthermore, if the food has no taste it can then lead to texture becoming a problem for some kids.

Increase zinc-rich foods into the child’s diet, including pumpkin and sunflower seeds. You could buy a seed or coffee grinder or buy them ground, so you can sprinkle them on your child's breakfast each morning. Beef and seafood are also good sources - you can make curries, casseroles, and cottage pies and always add vegetables to them.

Supplementation may also benefit the child; there is usually a good level of zinc in a multi-vitamin.

Digestive problems

Low stomach acid may lead to feelings of discomfort and bloating in a child. Stomach acid helps break down and digest proteins so, if stomach acid is low, protein food may linger around too long in the gut causing discomfort. The child may associate this with protein-rich and food and stop eating it. Protein is essential for maintenance, growth, mood and movement.

What to do: Make eating a ritual and always try to sit at a table when eating. Don’t allow TV, phones or computer games when eating - the body needs to be prepared for digestion and distractions may confuse the body so it will not prepare itself for digestion and absorption.

Some foods that may help with low stomach acid are:

  • Apple cider vinegar, which you can put in salad dressings or on vegetables.
  • Papaya and pineapple, which contain digestive enzymes that will help break down proteins.

Drinking water throughout the day can help, too. Remember, staying hydrated helps with stomach acid but don’t encourage large glasses of water at mealtimes, as this may dilute the foods.

You can also try a supplement: Caricol – pureed papaya.

Food intolerances

If children are intolerant to wheat and dairy, they may not be digesting it properly. Large food particles can escape into the bloodstream causing an opiate-like response to the food. This is a feel-good response when eating the food the child is intolerant to, this then can lead to cravings.

Yeast overgrowth can also lead to carbohydrate cravings. When a child craves a certain food suspect an intolerance or yeast problem.

What to do: A nutritional therapist can advise on testing for intolerance and give advice on possibly eliminating a food from the diet.

Chemicals such as MSG are found in processed foods and children may become addicted to these chemicals. This is why they may only choose a certain brand of food i.e. McDonalds or a Domino’s pizza.

What to do: Try to home-cook these favourite foods. Make your own pizza at home and get them to help - introduce slowly at first.

Child trying corn on the cob

10 top tips to combat fussy eating

  • Make food interesting! Taste, texture and the way it looks can have a dramatic effect on the way a child sees food. Roast kale and cauliflower in the oven with olive oil and turmeric - it is similar in taste and texture to crisps. Use dips and encourage children to dip carrots and celery into them.
  • Eat at a table with no distractions. Ask them to help set the table so they know that food is coming, make rituals around food.
  • Ask your child to help with the shopping - ask them to get six apples or a packet of tomatoes. Get a vegetable box with random fruit and vegetables making it a surprise each week to see what is in the box. Take them to farmers’ markets, get them interested in food.
  • Avoid processed, refined foods. Instead, get the children to help with menu planning and cooking.
  • Incorporate vegetables into pasta sauces and soups and liquidise.
  • Add vegetables into baking - beetroot and courgette work well in cakes.
  • Don’t put pressure on them; try to make mealtimes relaxed. However, be firm. Have a ‘one try’ rule and keep trying with different foods. It can take quite a few times until a child starts to like certain foods.
  • Accept that some things they are just not going to like ever! Don’t pick food out or avoid making it, though. Put healthy food on the plate that they will like and the stuff they won’t or new foods to try as well.
  • Don’t lose heart. It takes time and they may not ever like everything but you may be able to introduce more foods into their diet.
  • A nutritional therapist will be able to help with a child and teenagers' fussy eating habits and offer parents the much-needed support.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Nutritionist Resource are reviewed by our editorial team.

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