Mealtimes should be a relaxed and enjoyable part of the day. But if your child is a fussy eater, sitting down to eat as a family can be anything but fun. Is there any way to ease the pain of dealing with fussy eaters?
Fussy eating can result in multiple meals being prepared each day, food wastage, and a great deal of frustration and often tears (from both child and parent). Fussy eating in children is a common concern, and if it is any consolation to those of you out there living this battle, take time to reflect on how few fussy adult eaters you know. So yes, fortunately, your child will most likely grow out of it.
A fear of trying new foods is called “neophobia”. It is very common in young children, particularly between 18-24 months of age, but can occur until they are much older than this. It can take as many as 10-15 times for a child to develop a taste for a new food, so perseverance is the key.
To understand a fussy eater, imagine being coerced to eat a food you hate. Applying a similar strategy if your child wants to spit food out may help you recognise that it is a natural response to something that does not taste good. Allowing them to spit it out may mean they will be more likely to try something new next time.
As with any parenting difficulty, it is important to have a clear strategy in mind, so try to set a game plan and aim to stick to it.
- First and foremost – relax. Easier said than done, right? But it is important, as these little people are very perceptive.
- Give lots of encouragement for positive behaviour and, where possible, no comment for negative behaviour.
- Have a routine before mealtime that breaks playtime from mealtime, e.g. washing hands or setting the table.
- Allow a maximum of 30 minutes for a meal. Evidence shows that very little additional food is consumed after 30 minutes, so try not to drag out the process any longer.
- Talk about other aspects of the food (colour, texture, how it is grown, animals that eat it – whatever you feel may interest your child).
- Make vegetables a fun and interesting topic. Have a space in your yard for a small vegetable patch or herb garden.
- Aim to regularly eat together without distractions such as TV or mobile phones.
- It is important for your child to see you eating a variety
of foods, and research shows a correlation between parental intake and the variety of children’s intake.
- Avoid snacks for two hours before dinner.
- Add extra vegetables into foods, such as shredded courgette in muffins, grated carrot in meatballs, or pumpkin pikelets.
- On your child’s plate, have a combination of foods they will eat, and some new foods (a small portion).
- Ensure you offer foods you don’t eat yourself so your children also develop a taste for these.
- Where appropriate, start involving your child in dinner preparation. Include them in:
– choosing vegetables at the supermarket
– washing vegetables or peeling the outer layers (such as broccoli, cabbage, lettuce)
– stirring/mixing salad, stir-fry, stew, bolognaise (teach them to stir hot foods carefully
Present foods in a variety of different ways:
- carrot rings/sticks/grated
- cheese cubes/sticks/kebabs
- mince meatballs/bolognaise/pattie
ideas for fruits and vegetables
- Fruit and vegetables are often enjoyed more when frozen
- Fruit kebab sticks
- Homemade potato chips
- Hidden in other foods (muffins, fritters)
ideas for milk and milk alternatives
- Dairy food yoghurt
- Frozen or fresh smoothie
- Cheese sticks or grated cheese
ideas for meat and meat alternatives
- Mini meatballs
- 100% beef/pork sausages
- Chickpeas (some kids will eat these by themselves)
- Free-range crumbed chicken tenderloins
- French toast (using plenty of egg)
ideas for breads and cereals
- Dried breakfast cereals
- Rice cubes (rice pressed into cubes/balls, plain or with fillings)
- Mini pizza on pita pocket
I have very few “never” messages, but force-feeding is one of them. Any parent you talk to who has tried this would not recommend it, as the minimal amount of food you manage to get into the child is not worth the long-term effects and tension this could create. Often when I talk to parents, they realise it has been a long time since they last offered particular foods. Keeping a list can help, and if you have not offered something in a while, give it another go. Your child may surprise you!
Every new food your child adds to their diet is a great achievement, so pat yourself on the back and hang in there. If you feel you need support, have a chat with a professional and put some structured plans in place.
Depending on your child, start at an appropriate step below and work through these stages:
- Encourage your child to allow the food item to stay on their plate.
- Encourage your child to pick the food up, look at it, and talk about it.
- Encourage them to lick it or put it in their mouth.
- Encourage them to have one mouthful. If they do, give plenty of praise and try not to push them to have more unless they want to.
- Encourage them to finish a portion.
aim for four
It is important to consider the nutritional consequences of fussy eating. Firstly, think about whether your child is eating foods from all four food groups:
- Meat and meat alternatives (meat/fish/chicken/eggs/legumes)
- Milk and milk alternatives (milk/yoghurt/cheese)
- Fruits and vegetables
- Breads and cereals (cereal/rice/bread/pasta)
If you can name some foods that your child accepts in each category, that’s great. Even if it is only a few, at least your child is getting a good range of nutrients. If there is a group they are completely missing, make this your priority area to focus on first.
While we all want what is best for our children and strive for the healthiest choices, in some cases, you need to prioritise building on variety and having children try new things. For example, dairy food yoghurt has sugar in it, but it also has calcium, vitamin D, and protein, so if that is the only way you can tick the milk and milk alternatives box at this stage, then go for it.
Angela is a dietitian specialising in paediatrics, food intolerances, and weight management. Her practice, FoodSavvy, is based in Wellington and Nelson. www.foodsavvy.co.nz