Science Explains Why Your Toddler is a Fussy Eater

It’s time once and for all to end the guilt trip, moms and dads. If you have a fussy toddler who is turning every meal time into a battleground, research says you can relax (a little). One major reason why toddlers are highly selective about which foods they will eat (food fussiness) or will flat out refuse to eat (food neophobia) is based on genetics, according to Andrea Smith, at University College London who co-led a new study on the topic.

Whether Megan will be picky about her peas or Tyler will vehemently refuse to eat bananas appears to have some significant roots in their genes, although parents and environmental factors don’t get a complete pass. In fact, based on the findings of a study of identical twins and non-identical twins, the investigative team pointed fingers at genetics as the reason for 46% of instances of food fussiness and for 58% of refusal to try new foods. 

Read about how brains can be trained to love healthy foods

The researchers arrived at these numbers after evaluating the eating habits of more than 1,900 pairs of 16-month-old twins with information provided by their parents. They used both identical twins (who share 100% of their genes) and non-identical twins (50% shared) and looked at how toddlers responded to smell, taste, and textures of foods.

Although the findings of this study provide some good news for us parents who worry about whether their toddler is getting enough variety or nutrients, they don’t lift the responsibility off of us completely. However, it can provide new insights into how to deal with fussy toddlers at mealtime. 

For example, Smith pointed out that forcing children to eat something they don’t want can make the kids dig in their heels and make their fussiness even stronger. The result is higher stress levels in both parents and child and no success in getting the youngster to eat. 
One way to help avoid a fussy eater is to lay the right groundwork at weaning. Dr. Alastair Sutcliffe, a pediatric specialist at University College of London points out that giving children sweet foods during weaning can be a significant cause of developing fussiness. Instead, children should be introduced to a variety of nutritious foods with different tastes while limiting anything sweet. 

Read about 12 nutrition tips for fussy eaters

Parents who already have a fussy eater (ahem, that would be me!) should focus on making mealtimes fun and stress-free. Offer a wide variety of foods that everyone at the table can enjoy so you are not making 'special meals' once dinner has been served. It may help to present the foods in creative or colorful ways so they look pleasing as well (this technique works well on younger kids). Do you have a fuzzy eater at home? I'd love to hear what you do.

Smith AD et al. Food fussiness and food neophobia share a common etiology in early childhood. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 2016 Oct 14


By Andrea Donsky| December 09, 2016
Categories:  Eat

About the Author

Andrea Donsky

Andrea Donsky

Founder & Chief Passionista at See my full bio here.

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