FUSSY EATERS: METHODS TO AVOID THE BATTLE
Do you have a picky eater at home? Have you experienced the mealtime battlefield where it feels like you can never win? Know that fussy eating is a normal part of childhood development and that this is a very common experience across families. It is important to understand that children’s appetites are affected by their growth cycles. Even babies have changing appetites. Between the ages of 1-6 years, it’s common for children to be really hungry one day and picky the next. Fussy eating allows children to explore their environment and assert their independence, though not always in a way that makes mum and dad happy!
Here are some things you can do to improve your child’s eating habits and save your sanity when it comes to mealtimes.
Take control of snack time
If you are providing snacks and food that your children love between regular mealtimes, and they are not eating their meals, it may be a sign that they are holding out for those preferred snacks. Try taking control of the pantry and fridge before and after mealtimes, limiting access to these choices an hour on either side.
Lead by example
Eating habits are learned behaviours that your child will pick up on, so it is up to you to set a good example. Your child should be eating the same meals as the rest of the family (where age-appropriate). Offering different meals for adults and children, or even between your children, can sometimes encourage picky eating. This also means trying to avoid influencing the dislikes of your child’s food choices with your own. If you repeat how you hate broccoli, your child may adopt the same sentiment.
Choices, choices, choices
Keep offering new foods at different times. Begin offering foods with a variety of textures (mashed, pureed, chopped, etc.) from an early age so they can explore these options. You can also try letting your child make choices within a range of healthy foods. For example - ‘Would you like grapes or celery with your sandwich today?’. Just limit the options to 2-3 things, so your child doesn’t get too confused or overwhelmed to eat.
Direct attention away
When families share a meal, it becomes less about the food and more about the community. Try not to focus too much attention on your child when they are displaying fussy eating behaviours and acting out. Often, the attention they get from being fussy can increase this bad behaviour as it is getting attention from you. Try offering the choice of eating the food options and if behaviour deteriorates, direct focus to other members of the family. Be prepared to compromise to get the desired effect (i.e. just eat one bite). Pleasant, low-stress and regular mealtimes can help with fussy eating (and with your sanity).
Avoid bribery & punishment
It can be tempting to offer your child treats like dessert to encourage them to eat something - for example, ‘If you have a carrot, you can have some chocolate after dinner’. But this can make your child more interested in the treat than in developing a good relationship with healthy food. Eating these foods becomes a chore that they are then rewarded for completing, which can be a nasty habit when they grow up. Furthermore, punishing your child for refusing to try new foods can turn new foods into a negative thing. Avoid bargaining with your child or substituting healthy foods for favourite foods, just try offering them the same food again at the next meal.
Switch it up
If your child is struggling with a texture or flavour, try other foods with similar nutrients. For example - switch out yoghurt instead of milk, mince instead of chewy meat or grated vegetables instead of cooked vegetables. You should be trying to follow the Australian Dietary Guidelines for Children, which can provide ideas for food groups to focus on. Challenge yourself to plan a different lunch and dinner for every day during the week, ensuring children won’t automatically assign a certain meal to a certain mealtime, i.e. lunch is always a peanut butter sandwich, breakfast is cereal etc. This can lead to a limited diet and fights when any changes are made to their routine.
Wind down before a meal
Your child’s willingness to try food will depend partly on the eating environment. If your child finds it hard to settle down at the table, ensure they start winding down at least 15 minutes before a meal. Have them stop whatever they are doing and read a book, wash their hands or do some other quiet activity to calm down. We also suggest turning the TV off so your family members can talk to each other during the meal, as electronics can distract children from focusing on eating.
Make it fun!
Creating a face out of vegetables or a rainbow out of different coloured fruits often encourages children to try new food. You could also try involving your child in the cooking process by asking them to help you choose a recipe, wash the vegetables or set the table before a meal. Whisking and mixing are tasks that (usually) don’t result in too much mess.
Moral of the story? Try, try again.
A toddler may need to be offered the same food upwards of 10 to 15 times before they will even try it. Your pre-schooler may negotiate with you every mealtime to avoid certain foods. Do not be put off by this – persistence and patience are key. Remain calm and try new ways to introduce foods into their diet, but most importantly, do not give up! Always remember that healthy children will not starve themselves. This is a normal process of children developing their relationship with food.
Children learn by testing the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. They can be very strong-willed when it comes to making decisions about food, but it’s all part of their social, intellectual and emotional development. We love finding ways to include new foods in our menus and our in-house chefs are so creative! You can always have a chat with our friendly team about ideas for picky eaters at home or contact us to discuss what our menu looks like in-centre. If you are concerned about an ongoing food-related problem for your child, we suggest contacting your doctor to discuss it. You can find some of our delicious recipe ideas to expand your menu here.