Our language around food, the messaging our children are bombarded with and a society focused on health, results in conflicting ideas on talking about food with fussy eaters. This week, I was upset with the messaging behind a viral article that was shaming lunchboxes purely on a file of photos from 2 different geographic areas within Melbourne. (You can see my Facebook rant here.) It is not that I am anti-healthy foods. In fact, my mission is one of empathy to work towards healthy eating. It’s just that I am keenly aware that a picture, a food list, a 2 sentence statement about a child’s eating or a quick remark is NEVER the full story of a person’s journey to eating. Hence, I wanted to take a less ranty approach here today (because ranting is just not my thing and it makes me feel uncomfortable.) Let’s dive into ways to encourage a growth mindset around food. Positive learning. Without pressure.

Does it take 12 times to learn about a new food before eating it?

You may have heard this statistic. You may have heard the “15 times” version. You may also have heard the corresponding statistic that the average cook will cease offering a rejected food after 2.6 attempts. The statistics are population wide statistics. With very fussy eaters*, this statistic can blow out to being many, many more times the population average. This is why learning language around food is so important. It keeps us positive as parents when we offer the foods. It keeps the children more open minded to the fact that it takes a while to learn. For example, my 6 yo is still learning about cheese. We have some little “wins” every now and then, but this is a big hill for her to climb. She has a keen olfactory sense (sensitive to smells) and her learns are happening. – yet, much slower than she goes with a range of other foods. Cheese “fills her sensory cup” like other foods simply just don’t.  Does she say “yuck” – no, she says “that smell is too big for me today”.


* note that I use the term “fussy eaters” on the website but I do not use this word near children. Labels stick. Whenever possible, try to use something like “Johnny is learning about cheese” rather than “Johnny is a fussy eater and won’t eat cheese”.

What are we learning when we eat?

We use every sense in our body when it comes to eating. Two of the biggest feeding myths are that eating is a pass/fail exercise (either you do or you don’t) and it’s simple to do. These myths need to be kicked to the kerb! We do so much when it comes to eating including;

  • our body needs to determine that it is hungry and we are ready to take on all the learns about a new food
  • we use our eyes to dynamically assess the food’s tangible properties
  • we use our nose to recognize the smell or determine if it is big/small/familiar
  • plan getting the food out of the bowl/plate/packet/bottle
  • using our fingers to learn about the textural properties and temperature
  • as we chew it we are learning if it is noisy (and often the amount of noise changes as we chew)
  • we need to move the food around our mouth (if oral motor skills are a question for you, please see this set of screening exercises that will help you know if this element of eating is causing your child feeding concerns)

And this is before we use 26 muscles and 6 cranial nerves just to execute the first swallow. On top of this there are all the environmental, social and organisation factors that influence every single feeding opportunity.

In itself, eating is one of the most complex tasks we do and over time we learn patterns to help us “short cut” the learning. Sometimes children can’t lay down these short-cuts and the learning feels like too much with each bite, hence it is easier to stick with foods that require less learning for them.

How do we encourage children to have a food learning mindset?

As with all styles of learning, there are many approaches. I enjoy using play and a bottom-up approach to helping foods become more accepted. It starts with tolerating talking about a variety of foods. I have a free printable via my newsletter list for you! This printable is of a bunny who is learning about a food. You need to follow the lines to find out which food the bunny is learning about. To extend on the activity, you then have to draw a line for the bunny to follow so that he can learn about the broccoli. It is also blank for your child to colour in. As much as this seems like a far cry from EATING apple, carrot, broccoli or banana. This sheet is aimed at using tangible aspects of foods in your conversation away from meals. (Age: 2-6)

Once we are building the language about foods, we can bring it into food preparations, shopping and meal discussions. We can provide children with learning bowls at the table for small portions of foods they aren’t yet comfortable to eat but still can interact with them.

One of the main steps is giving yourself the keys to positive food talk with kids.

How do we handle negative or insistent talk about food?

Role modelling tangible food talk (ie. talk to the sensory properties like colour / temperature / noise) away from meals, offering non-verbal prompts to help them at mealtimes (like a learning bowl) and keeping pressure down will help them start to become more positive. Often children can be influenced by what their peers are eating and saying about food. If peer pressure is causing them to refuse foods or insist on different foods, taking the approach of this is what foods we have in our house to learn about is important. Establishing the responsibilities of mealtimes is especially important in these cases. In brief, it’s important that parents provide and children decide.

If they have worries about missing out on foods that their peers are having, you can try:

  • making a similar version that fits with your family food philosophy / allergy / intolerance requirements
  • have a designated time to have this food so that they know they aren’t missing out on it and know when they get to have it (eg. a canteen order, a set time of the week for a specific food type and to allow them to have as much as they want when it is on offer).
  • including foods you may have deemed as “treats” at an afternoon tea or dinner at a time of your discretion for the whole family so that this does not glorify them beyond their scope.
  • explain to older children that we can always have fun even when some foods aren’t able to be offered – see this post on the bugabees book that I adore for a good picture book helping children or siblings with food allergies.

What if children associate food with pain, how do we talk about pain?

“English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache… The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head toa doctor and language at once runs dry” – Virginia Woolfe

This quote was included in the pages of “Turtles All the Way Down” by John Green. I just finished reading this book and THIS. It resonated so quickly in my heart. I was immediately caught thinking of how difficult it is for some children and adults to express pain words. The pain that they feel around food or did feel. How it causes them to be anxious about making that pain happen again, even when the response is so ingrained and the pain was long in the past. For example, infants that suffer from reflux have an increased likelihood of fussy eating behaviours and it vastly impacts the quality of life for their family. Helping them communicate pain, feel at ease and for us to go on the learning journey with them as a team member is so important.

As a society, we can often down play pain. And, I believe, this can be due to a lack of words for it. In my experience, empathy is what we need more of here. And this article I wrote re: handling empathy for fussy eaters is a must read.


Where to next…

For a great deep dive into the practicalities of encouraging a positive and learning mindset around food with your kids, I’d love for you to invest in your parenting toolkit with this video on “Positive Food Talk with Kids“.  I filmed it with accredited practicing dietitan, Meg McClintock, and it’s full of practical advice for navigating food talk with kids to help them grow into food confident teens.

Jo Cormack answers a common question about food language with kids here in her article about why health professionals would NOT recommend reward charting food experiences.

Also – don’t forget to sign-up to the email list to get the free printable to kick start your learning mindset conversations!

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