Learning to eat is an individual journey for every child. 

From the fundamental motor skills involved in eating and swallowing to experiencing new tastes and textures to the introduction of informed nutrition choices, there is so much to keep learning throughout this journey.

For children and young people, eating brings a continuous wave of new experiences which helps shape their attitudes to food and mealtimes.

It’s not uncommon for children to become fussy when eating, as they react to things such as different textures and flavours, smells, temperature and variations in the presentation of food.

We’ve looked at some of the challenges families can experience at mealtimes, and how you can seek support that makes a difference.

Daycare children are seen sitting around a table eating their lunch. They are dressed casually and have healthy eating choices on the table in front of them as they talk amongst themselves.

Mealtime struggles

Fussy, or picky eating is a normal occurrence during childhood which can change at different stages.

Picky eating involves avoidance of certain types of foods — often vegetables — as well as having very clear preferences for certain foods and generally avoiding new foods, according to Recovery Village.

In a 2022 survey by HCF, approximately seven out of ten parents say they have a child who is a fussy eater.

This can make mealtimes challenging, repetitive and often, frustrating.

If you’re experiencing these challenges, you are not alone – up to 77% of parents find mealtime difficult or stressful for their family.

Almost half of respondents finding dinner the most stressful meal, HCF have found.

When mealtimes are stressful, there are challenges for both the caregiver and child.

For caregivers, it can result in frustration, aversion to mealtimes and cooking, uncertainty about nutrition and how to introduce meals and foods, along with the added stress of having to prepare multiple meals.

For children, it can result in either over-eating, eating too little (if at all), lowered confidence when eating and around food – even  inadequate nourishment in some cases. Often, poor mealtime habits are established that can be hard to change.

Getting the nourishment they need

It can be difficult to know if children are consuming their required intake of nutrients.

You can get support from health professionals like speech pathologists, occupational therapists and dietitians to assess your child’s intake and diagnose any feeding issues and help to develop ongoing strategies that address feeding challenges.

With improved knowledge and knowing different mealtime support strategies, eating can become more enjoyable for the whole family.

Assisting children to eat correctly enables them to obtain sufficient and balanced nutrition from food, an article by Chen-Ya Juan says.

This enables them not only to be physically healthier, but it also gives them more energy for play, development and learning.

Some of the kinds of tips and strategies for this, depending on your situation can be:

  • Strategies for including your child in food shopping and meal preparation
  • Avoiding snacking before main meals 
  • Minimising distractions at mealtimes
  • Offer a small amount of food at a time
  • Trying preparing vegetables differently or offering them at different times
  • Offering new foods with familiar foods
  • Changing the mealtime environment

Regular behaviours and when to be concerned 

Often, picky eating is something a child will grow out of as they develop.

For caregivers, it is helpful to know what symptoms are typical of picky eating, and when they should be concerned to flag certain symptoms with health professionals.

Some behaviours typically associated with picky eating include:

  • Low level of independent eating
  • Food refusal
  • Refusing to accept or try a wide range of foods
  • Inflexible food preferences
  • Distraction from eating
  • Behaviour problems
  • Eating slowly

There is a point where picky eating can become cause for concern, these can include:

  • Sudden or significant weight loss
  • Failure to maintain or gain weight
  • Difficulty interacting around food or in social situations
  • Fear relating to food or of adverse consequences to eating
  • Lack of interest in food or eating 
  • Mealtime stress that overwhelms the family

If you observe symptoms which are cause for concern, please consult with your healthcare professionals.

What support is available?

At Early Start Australia Bondi Junction, we understand the challenges parents and caregivers face when it comes to ensuring their children receive a well-balanced and nutritious diet. 

We recognise that picky eating habits can be a source of stress and concern, potentially affecting a child’s growth, development, and overall well-being. 

With our mealtime service, our speech pathologists and occupational therapists assess and make recommendations to address these concerns. We are experienced in providing tailored guidance and support for children from 2 -12 years.

Areas we cover:

  • Feeding assessments – eating, drinking and swallowing safely, sensory profile and preferences
  • Developing oromotor skills – chewing and preparing food for swallowing
  • Independent feeding skills – increasing confidence and independent skills with eating
  • Sensory regulation strategies – preparing for mealtimes, accepting and tolerating different textures of food
  • Liaison and referral to other related health professionals – Dieticians, Psychologists, General Practitioners, Paediatricians, Ear, Nose and Throat Specialists where required

We’ll develop a therapy plan to address challenges and help children broaden their food preferences. We can also help establish safe and healthy eating habits around eating, drinking, swallowing, independent feeding, and provide therapy supports around sensory and behavioural challenges during mealtimes.

Find out more about Early Start Australia Bondi Junction Mealtimes service, call 1300 372 439 or visit earlystartaustralia.com.au/bondijunction