Two-year-old Alice does not like meat and only eats broccoli with ketchup, but scientists researching toddlers’ eating habits do not blame her parents.
Instead, her fussy food preferences are – largely – down to who she is and the genes she has inherited.
They play a key role in her willingness to eat, or even try, new foods.
But parents are not completely off the hook – children’s behaviour can be changed, UK research into nearly 2,000 sets of 16-month-old twins suggests.
Alice’s mum, Kate Parnham, says her daughter is a typical toddler who likes different foods one day and refuses them the next.
She loves fruit – like bananas, blueberries and strawberries – and laps up peas and sweetcorn, but there are some things she really dislikes.
“She will only eat meat if it’s disguised in a sauce, like bolognese. If it’s obvious, like ham sandwiches or chicken nuggets, then she just spits it out,” says Kate.
Does it make Kate feel better to know that parents are not to blame for their children’s fussy eating?
“Oh yes, I would have blamed parents before now,” she says.
“What goes on at home makes a big difference though.
“I know I go for safe options for Alice – the things she likes. I don’t often offer peppers or green beans, for example.”
According to Andrea Smith, a PhD student at University College London, who jointly led the research, parents often feel judged or guilty about their children’s fussy eating.
“Understanding that these traits are largely innate might help to deflect this blame,” she said.
Andrea’s research tried to work out what influenced the twins’ attitudes to food, finding that genes were as influential as environmental factors – and in some cases, more important than what happens in the home.
However, she acknowledged that having children who were picky eaters was a major concern to parents – but it was a trait that could be changed.
The researchers say parents need to work with their children to try new foods.
The advice is to start early, keep trying and never force a child to eat something they do not want to have.
On average, a child needs to be offered a new food 15 times before he or she will eat it.
The UCL team, which published its research in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, said future research should try to identify what aspects of home and family life influenced food fussiness in young children.
Tips to cope with fussy young eaters
- Eat your meals together as a family if possible
- Give small portions and praise your child for eating, even if they only manage a little
- If your child rejects the food, don’t force them to eat it. Just take the food away without comment and try to stay calm
- Your child may be a slow eater so be patient
- Don’t give too many snacks between meals
- Try changing the form a food comes in – for example, try cooked carrots instead of raw or grated carrot
Source: NHS Choices
Fussy-eating toddlers ‘not the fault of parents’