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Many children – and adults! – are fussy eaters. There may, of course, be a straightforward reason why someone is a fussy eater. It could just be that the food they’re being given doesn’t taste very nice! However, sometimes a child’s fussy eating can not only seem baffling, it can also cause them and their family a good deal of distress. Mealtimes can quickly become tense occasions where the focus becomes centred on what the child will and will not eat. This, in a worst case scenario, can lead to a child developing a food-related phobia which might express itself as a refusal to try certain foods.

When a child is very fussy with their food it might be the case that this is related to Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Children might be overly sensitive to the smells, tastes, textures and appearance of food. In such cases, it is important for the parent or carer to understand that the child is not being fussy to be difficult or annoying, or as a means of attracting attention. If anything, the opposite is likely to be true and the child is probably feeling guilty and embarrassed as a result of their fussiness.

SPD may manifest itself as ‘oral defensiveness’ where a child is very sensitive to oral sensations, such as different textures. Pasta and porridge, for example, may be too squishy and a child will avoid soft foods at all costs.  In other cases, a child may be ‘sensory seeking’. This means that he or she will desire food that delivers a sensory ‘kick’ whether that be through strong flavours or particular textures – i.e. crunchy carrots, spicy or hot foods such as pickled onions.

Food can also be used as a nurturing assistant when a child is dysregulated and we know that foods which need more crunch help with anxiety, chewy foods are better for anger, and spicy foods help children who tend to shut-down or freeze. We know how much sucking can support a child who feels scared, e.g. babies sucking thumbs, primary children sucking on their cuffs and collars to help them to regulate themselves.

In many of the “Meltdown kKds” books, food or oral input is a great regulator. Sweets, straws and chewy and crunchy foods are used in a number of the stories.

Oral sensitivities may be exacerbated by the environment where the meal is taking place. In the case of Jack in ‘Frightening Friday’, he is not only orally sensitive, but he is also rigid in his behaviour and routine-bound. As such, for him, a strange and busy restaurant where he is sitting in a position that doesn’t suit him, coupled with food presented in a way that he is unfamiliar with, triggers his explosive response. 

In Jack’s case, preparing him for the next meal beforehand – both in terms of the food he will eat and other factors such as his position at the table – will help to ensure that he enjoys his meal. Of course, every child is different and each will require specific strategies to suit them. However, what’s important, in every case, is to realise that strategies can help and that, with help, a fussy eater will hopefully become less fussy and enjoy their food more. 

Please remember never to force a child to eat a food that is causing them to gag. This is not fair and will be traumatic for them. Encourage them to eat a range of foods and always offer new tastes and textures and you will see that changes occur over time. Sometimes children will stick with their favourite foods for a long time and find variation too scary. Don’t worry too much –  it does eventually change.