Many children are fussy eaters. Although it is entirely normal, it can be frustrating and hard to handle – particularly when there’s always at least one mother whose angelic offspring eats everything and still asks for second helpings of broccoli.
What you need to know is that, most of the time, fussy eating isn’t about food, and it’s (usually) not about you either. It’s about children wanting to be independent.
If you’re graced with a fussy eater in the family, I’d like to share some tips on how to handle it.
First, a word about fussy eating…
Children frequently object to the shape, colour or texture (and sometimes all of them) of particular foods.
You might also find they will like something perfectly well one day, but dislike it the next, refuse new foods, and eat more or less from day to day. It might drive you insane, but this is all part of a child’s development. It’s a way of exploring their environment and asserting their independence. And – as a side issue – it’s also because their appetites go up and down, depending on how much they’re growing and how active they are.
It WILL get better, I promise. Fussy eating is generally something that children grow out of. Their palates change as they get older and they don’t need to exert quite the same level of control over their environment and, very gradually, something resembling normal family eating can resume …
How to make mealtimes better
Your child’s willingness to try food will depend partly on the eating environment. There will be times when you want to tear your hair out. This will have the opposite effect of what you are hoping to achieve. Try these steps for a low-stress mealtime.
- Make mealtimes happy, regular and social occasions. Don’t worry about mess made on tables or drinks spilled on the floor.
- Never force your child to try a food.
- Have realistic expectations. Ask your child to lick a piece of food, and work up to trying a mouthful over time. Don’t forget to praise your child for every small effort, like trying a new food.
- If your child is fussing, ignore it as much as you can. Giving attention to fussy eating can encourage your child to keep behaving this way.
- Make healthy foods fun – whenever you have the time. Cut sandwiches into interesting shapes, or let your child help prepare some of the meal.
- Turn the TV off, so family members can talk to each other instead.
- Set a time limit of about 20 minutes for meals. Anything that goes on too long isn’t fun. If your child hasn’t eaten the food in this time, take it away – but don’t offer your child more food until the next planned meal or snack time.
- Put a small amount of any new food on the plate with familiar food your child already likes – a piece of broccoli alongside some mashed potato. Encourage your child to touch, smell or take a lick of the new food.
- Make the food attractive. Offer your child a variety of different colours, shapes and sizes and let your child choose what they eat from the plate.
- Don’t give up at the first hurdle. Keep offering foods that have been refused before. It can take 10 to 15 times before they even try a taste of a food they previously refused. Frustrating? Yes! Consider that you are training them for the future.
Sometimes your child will refuse food just because this gets an interesting reaction from you. If children refuse to eat a food, it doesn’t necessarily mean they dislike it – after all, they might not have even tasted it yet. They might just be putting on a show of independence to see what you’ll do. Be prepared and consider what your response will be – this scenario will occur!
Consider this: children learn by testing the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. It’s all part of their social, intellectual and emotional development.
How to introduce new foods to fussy eaters
- When possible, look for opportunities for your child to share meals and snacks with other children – they might be more willing to try a food if other children are eating it.
- Serve your child the same meal the family is eating, but in a portion size your child will eat. Sometimes children need to take their cue from parents – play the game of vocalizing how yummy the food is.
- Don’t let your child fill up on drinks, snacks or treat foods before introducing new foods. They are more likely to try the food if they’re hungry and there isn’t a better option around the corner.
Punishments & rewards
Punishing your child for refusing to try new foods can turn new foods into a negative thing. If your child refuses to eat it, you can offer it to them again another time.
It’s tempting to offer your child food treats just so he ‘eats something’ – for example ‘If you eat your vegetables, you can have a biscuit’. But this can make your child more interested in treats than healthy food. Of course, you have to decide on your house rules, but this sends the message that eating healthy food is a chore.
It’s easy to worry, if your child refuses food, whether they are actually eating what they need to grow and thrive. If your child has enough energy to play and learn, they are probably eating enough. If your child eats an incredibly limited range or foods or refuses entire food groups for a prolonged period of time, it might be worth booking to see your GP or health visitor.