I loved when I was posed with this question. I loved it because answering it will give me an opportunity to talk about why I became a children’s nutritionist after more than twenty years working in the food additives development industry: I watched a documentary on eating disorders which featured five adults, men and women, with different unhealthy relationships with food and eating. They all had different issues, but one thing was common to all, the disordered eating behaviour started in childhood.
In the past ten years, I’ve been studying (got a new bachelor degree) and researching on children’s nutrition and, more specifically, on fussy eating.
“Eating healthy” can mean different things to different people. But, in general, when we hear the term, what comes to mind is the image of assorted vegetables and fruits, salads and smoothies. Some people will go further and envisage the superfoods of the moment. Be it goji berries or turmeric powder. Others may say that “eating healthy” means a diet free from grain foods. For others, it is a diet free from animal foods or free from cooked foods, or… the list goes on and on. Everyone you talk to will have an opinion about what “eating healthy” means.
Responsible nutrition professionals will not have an opinion. They base their advice on scientific facts. Pretty much as if we were “interpreters” of scientific language to the lame people. That’s why we studied nutrition in the first place. And science has a very simple recommendation regarding what makes a healthy diet: balance and variety. In general lines, this means that all foods can be part of a healthy diet when certain proportions are respected.
The chart below is a representation of the Australian Dietary Guidelines’ 5 core food groups from which is recommended we eat certain amounts daily for good health. Balance and variety: certain amounts from each group daily.
The recommended amount of each food group varies depending on sex and age. You can check more details on Australian Guide to Healthy Eating.
There’s a sixth group, discretionary foods, which is of the foods most people classify as “junk food”, and these are deemed not essential for good health and should be avoided in large quantities, as it would then take the diet out of balance from the other five food groups.
I think it isn’t too hard for you to agree with this logic. Statistics show we are not eating enough of the “healthy” part of the chart and eating quite a lot of the “discretionary” part of it most of the time1, and we know it: we are not “eating healthy”.
In much bigger trouble though are parents of children who refuse to eat most foods from one, two, sometimes three of the core food groups. Often, children will refuse an entire food group and not eat one single representative food in that group. One example is the protein rich foods group (meats, eggs, fish/seafoods, legumes and nuts). Some children will not eat any of these foods, and if they do, it is because it was hidden in a muffin or pasta sauce.
In this instance, it is much much harder to feed such a child a balanced diet. So, how can this fussy eater eat healthy?
Ah… there is more to feeding and eating than meets the eye. Comprehensive public dietary health recommendations include a list of other factors like culture, social habits, food security etc. The Brazilian Dietary Guidelines are a good example of it. It presents photographs of several examples of balanced meals that are popular in different regions of that country2. This is because eating is not a mechanical task. We eat for comfort, we eat to socialise, we eat as a habit … humans are very much driven to eat and choose foods for emotional reasons rather than physical ones3,4,5. We, adults and children, seek foods that appeal to us, that fulfill our emotional needs. When we have the opportunity to have a meal in this condition, we feel good, satisfied, healthy. Emotionally healthy.
Now, I understand this argument will not motivate a mother to let their fussy eater have just vanilla yoghurt for dinner night after night which would fulfill the child’s emotional need, but not their nutritional need. And it shouldn’t anyway. A mother is right to worry if her child is regularly missing out on nutrient-rich foods.
Fussy eating is a normal aspect of children’s development and, usually, it doesn’t represent a major health problem. But, if not handled properly, it can become a life-long behaviour that will likely cause irreparable damage in many aspects of a person’s health.
With patience and proper guidance, parents can master strategies that support their child to learn how to enjoy foods that will make up for a balanced diet in a way that will equally fulfill the child’s nutritional and emotional needs. When results start to show, healthy eating happens. And, by results, I don’t mean only the child eating all new foods the parents offer, but also HOW mealtimes are conducted. It may take weeks, months, years for children to learn enough about some foods and feel confident enough to finally start eating them, or not! What’s important is to give children the time, and support them while they explore and experiment with foods, without pressure, without battles.
This attitude makes mealtimes a whole lot more pleasant. A part of the day that children and adults cherish and look forward to. That’s definitely eating healthy even if they are still a fussy eater! 😊
By Fern Rodrigues, fussy eating specialist, ANutr of the Nutrition Society of Australia
One-on-one consultations, group counselling, webinars and talks (in person or online). Learn more and bookings at www.eatplaylearnnutrition.com.au.
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare – Poor Diet (2019, Australia) https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/food-nutrition/poor-diet/contents/poor-diet-in-children
- Dietary Guidelines for the Brazilian Population (2014, Brazil) Pages 57-65 https://www.fao.org/nutrition/education/food-based-dietary-guidelines/regions/countries/brazil/en/
- Competing influences on healthy food choices: Mind setting versus contextual food cues (2021, Germany/Netherlands) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34174362/
- Social modelling of food choices in real life conditions concerns specific food categories (2021, United Kingdom/France) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33607213/
- Apples or candy? Internal and external influences on children’s food choices (2015, USA) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25937512/