What have spiders got to do with fussy eating?!
Oh no! Am I going to suggest you get your child to dip a spider in chocolate and eat it? No, nothing like that! (Though they are full of protein 😉 )
Let me explain with a little analogy…
Ms. A. Raknofobia is terrified of spiders. She does everything she can to avoid them. She won’t go in the garden shed. She won’t go for a walk in the woods in case there are webs stretched between the trees. She asks her partner to check the bathroom every single morning before she takes a shower. If she does come across a spider, she runs away screaming…
Eventually, she decides to seek therapy. The therapist takes her through a step by step process:
Step 1: She looks at pictures of spiders.
Step 2: She watches videos of spiders scuttling along.
Step 3: She goes into a room with a spider on the far side of it.
Step 4: She inches closer and closer to the spider.
Step 5: She reaches out and touches the spider wearing a glove.
Step 6: Finally, she holds the spider in her bare hands – without feeling any fear at all!
She is cured! What was the secret? EXPOSURE! She needed to be put in closer and closer proximity with the very thing she didn’t want to go anywhere near.
A huge part of turning a fussy eater into a non-fussy eater is also about exposure.
It’s not that the fussy child is scared of the foods they won’t eat (though some children can develop a phobia or have an instinctive aversion to certain foods) but they are likely to have built up lots of negative associations with those foods through being repeatedly pressurised to eat them.
On top of this, when a child becomes fussy, we often stop giving them the foods they don’t eat – or any new foods – because we think it’s a waste of time and effort and they’ll end up in the bin anyway. Those foods then become alien and unfamiliar to them.
The first step is to re-expose them to those foods so they can become familiar and feel comfortable around them. They need to be put into close proximity with them! And just like the spider therapy, I often advise parents – especially those with extremely fussy eaters – to do this gradually over a few weeks.
Step 1: Present a tiny amount of the food they stopped eating – or a new food you’d like to introduce them to – in a ramekin or dipping-sauce bowl to the side of their meal.
Step 2: Put the food into a section of a divided plate with the rest of the meal in the other sections.
Step 3: Put the food onto a normal plate with the rest of the meal.
Initially, your child may ask for the food to be taken away, push it away or throw it on the floor, but if you calmly say, “It’s okay, it’s up to you if you eat it or not” they will soon allow it to ‘to exist’ in their presence. If they throw the food on the floor, don’t tell them off. In fact, ignore that behaviour completely and wait until mealtime is over to clear it up so it seems as if you’re really not bothered. It’ll soon stop if they get no attention for it whatsoever.
There should never be any pressure at all to actually eat the foods (Remember the golden rule: DISH UP, SHUT UP!). And once a food has been introduced, make sure it makes a regular appearance from then on to keep it familiar.
‘But how does this exposure lead to them actually eating the food?’ you may be wondering. Read this real life success story Lessons from a stick of celery to find out!
Exposure, exposure, exposure really is key to turning a fussy eater into a happy, healthy eater. Before you know it, they’ll be eating spiders dipped in chocolate! Okay, maybe not… 😉