Fussy eating is something all parents will deal with at one time or another. Many parents get very concerned about it, but I'm here to reassure you that it is NORMAL!
While it is normal for infants and children to go through phases of altered eating habits and fussiness, it is very frustrating for parents to stand by and watch. That's why I've out together this blog with a few actionable things to do if you have a fussy eater at home.
The first thing to remember is patience.
There is no point getting wound up or stressed if your child is refusing to eat dinner, you will only pass on that stress to them and everyone will be in a bad mood!
Remember that if they are really and truly hungry, they will eat something. If they aren't hungry or are refusing to eat at that exact moment, it is not a massive problem.
This is vital, because coercion isn't helpful.
If they refuse to eat or aren't hungry, accept it, rather than trying to coerce them into eating. Why? Because if they realise they can wangle their way into getting whatever they want for dinner, they will be at it every night! AND, by telling them that they must eat when you say so, you are teaching them to eat on command, rather than when their body tells them they are hungry. We are all born intuitive eaters-that is to say we are all born with an innate ability to know and understand when we are hungry and full. When we police what, when and how much children eat, we teach them not to trust their body and that they don't truly know their body- which is of course wrong!
Coercion can be:
"one spoon more and you can have dessert"
"will you eat if I get you some chips?"
"if you eat this, you can have X for dinner tomorrow"
Most of us have heard one or all of these at some point- they are a last resort for weary parents and I completely get it. But you have to remember that ultimately you are the adult, children don't run the show.
So how can you deal with fussy eating??
Research indicates that it can take up to 15 exposures to a food for a child to accept it, so if your little one spits out broccoli on first tasting, don't give up!
15 may seems like quite a lot, but try to think of how strange all the new tastes, textures and appearances are for infants and children- there really is a lot to get to grips with.
Exposure doesn't have to involve them actually eating the food either- although that is the end goal here.
Exposure can be:
Having the food on the table at dinner time- in a bowl self-serve style, ideally with other family members eating some.
Having the food around for them to see- on a shelf they can see in the fridge, on the counter or in a fruit bowl, pointed out to them in the supermarket etc.
Through food games- such as matching games that include pictures of foods and toy foods to play with in a mini-kitchen.
Messy play- the one that every adult dreads, but it can really help! Use foods as stampers with paint, do an experiment to see what floats and what sinks in water etc.
Cooking- get them involved in the kitchen. Children love to cook if they are given a chance and there is lots that they can do if you let them. What can they do: peeling, grating and chopping under supervision, mixing things in a bowl, doing the washing up, measuring things out (easier if you have measuring cups!), greasing cake tins and lining bun trays, gathering ingredients from the fridge, cracking eggs, putting things in the bin...They are far more likely to eat something they have helped to prepare too!
Chaining involves starting with an acceptable food and gradually altering that food bit by bit until eventually reaching another target food. This technique is most commonly used for children with autism and children with food fears, but a version can be used on anyone!
E.G. Acceptable food=strawberry yogurt, target food=cheddar cheese
Acceptable strawberry yogurt
->new brand strawberry yogurt
->single wrapped cheese slice
->cheddar cheese slice
It can be difficult to figure the best chain out, so be sure to get expert help from a registered nutritionist or dietitian if you are keen to try chaining!
Get children more involved in decisions:
Very often, fussy eating phases come at points in development where children are trying to gain independence, so they will welcome some new responsibility.
Parents tend not to like handing over the reigns, but you don't have to hand them over fully.
Here's what I mean:
Tell them they are big enough to decide what they want for their breakfast. Instead of keeping it wide open though, offer them 2-3 acceptable options.
I recommend having a nightly discussion about breakfast.
Depending on age and family preference, use written words on cards or pictures of the acceptable and available breakfast options.
Ask them what they would like for breakfast the following morning, and stick the one they chose on the fridge so that everyone remembers in the morning.
This way, they feel like they are deciding, but you are still in relative control, and ultimately everyone should be happy!
**Remember to only offer foods that are available and possible- E.G. if you have no bread, be sure to take toast off the list! You will have an argument if it comes to breakfast and they can't have their choice!**
Take home message:
Fussy eating is not the end of the world- approach it with patience and understanding as much as possible and get them involved in cooking and food decisions to help!
As always, if you have any questions or would like 121 support drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lots of love,
Little O x