Feeding fussy eaters can be a real challenge and meal times can easily become stressful and unenjoyable for both you and your child. You know they need to be eating healthy food: fruits, vegetables, wholegrains and lean meats; but how are they supposed to stay healthy when you can’t get them to eat the food in the first place?
Most parents who have dealt with toddlers have encountered some degree of fussy eating. As frustrating as it is, fussy eating is a normal part of a child’s development. Most children between 18 months and 5 years will go through a period of neophobia. This refers to a refusal to try new and unfamiliar foods. In evolutionary terms this makes sense – not eating something until the brain recognises it as safe.
Why do they seem to be so highly suspicious of vegetables in particular?
Probably due to many vegetables containing bitter compounds making them less palatable than sweeter foods. The high variety of crazy shapes and colours probably doesn’t help either.
They will also go through a period of refusing foods that they have previously happily accepted. This is believed to be more of a behavioural development issue. They’ve suddenly realised that they can enforce an influence on the world around them. For example, if they say “no” to peas, mum’s face makes the funniest expression and she pulls her hair out.
The toddler’s appetite
A toddler’s appetite is very different from that of an adult. The great thing about toddlers is that they don’t have all the social, cultural, emotional and psychological reasons for eating that adults do either.
The appetite of a toddler is simple. If a toddler stops eating they are full, and if a toddler continues eating they are hungry.
As parents, respecting these built in mechanisms helps our child grow up knowing to stop eating when they are full and to find something to eat when they are hungry. In order to survive in such a food abundant culture, cultivating the skill of ‘stop eating when you are full’, is important for their future health, especially in the prevention of obesity. We should not force our children to finish their plate, we want them to stop eating when they are full and learn to listen to their bodies. How many of us continue eating, even when we feel full, because we were brought up to not leave any food on our plates?
Tips and tricks to get them eating
Never give up
Research has shown that repeatedly offering and exposing your child to a rejected food will do wonders in getting them to accept the new food you are offering. If you offer a food and it gets rejected, don’t worry, just try again the next day. It can take up to 10+ exposures before a child will accept a new food, so be persistent, it will happen eventually!
You are NOT an a la Carte restaurant
When you offer your child a meal, if they won’t eat it, don’t stress. Do your best to encourage them to at least taste it and then tell them that meal time is over. Don’t offer them anything else to eat. Assume they are simply not hungry. You are not a restaurant where they can send the meal back and get something else, you are a busy parent who only needs to cook one meal for the family.
A child will quickly learn, even as young as 8 months old, if they refuse a new food or something they’re not keen on, you’ll eventually offer them something they like. Do this repeatedly and you are creating a fussy child. Don’t worry about them starving, they won’t. Remember: a (healthy) toddler won’t let themselves go hungry and if they do go hungry because you have a stubborn one on your hands they’ll quickly learn they either eat what’s put in front of them or they don’t eat at all.
A great rule to follow is: The parent decides what and when the child eats, and the child decides how much they eat. You are the parent, you decide what’s on the menu and they either eat it or they don’t.
Offer a variety of foods as early as possible
The more food variety children experience at a younger age the less neophobic they will become. Don’t assume they won’t like a food and then not give it to them. Give it a try, more often than not they’ll actually like it and if we follow rule number 1 then you know they’ll like it eventually!
By the time your child is 12-18 months they should have at least tasted most fruits and vegetables, a number of the family meals, cheese, yoghurt, meats, chicken, legumes, bread, rice, pasta, a few mild spices, herbs etc
Keep it familiar
Don’t offer a new food in a new environment. Research shows that combining a new food with a new environment increases the child’s reluctance to try and accept it. As much as you can, keep meal times consistently at home.
Keep it Stress Free
Kids have the ability to associate food with certain situations, whether they be good or bad. If meal times are stressful and you are cranky or distracted, you will create an atmosphere where your kids don’t feel confident enough to give the new food a try. Stay happy, focused and enjoy the ride!
Become a Cheerleader
Encourage, encourage, encourage! Tell your kids how proud you are of them for eating like a champion! The more positive associations kids have with meal times the more comfortable they will feel in trying and accepting new foods. Don’t reward with ‘junk food’, reward with words of affirmation!
Model healthy eating
Research shows that a child must see their parent, especially their mother, eat and enjoy the food that you are trying to get them to eat. It’s about modeling good eating habits in general, because ultimately our kids are going to learn the majority of their eating habits from their parents.
If you need help with improving your own eating habits The Healthy Eating Hub offers one-on-one consultations that can help improve your general health.
Harness positive peer pressure
Research has shown that a child is more likely to try and accept a previously rejected food if they are eating with children who are eating and enjoying the particular food. Join forces with your friends and neighbours and encourage your children to try new foods with the power of their peers.
Resist the temptation to use food bribes
“Eat all your pumpkin up and mummy will give you some ice cream afterwards.” Although this technique may work to get them to eat a particular food, it actually makes them dislike the food they have to eat and like the reward food even more than they did in the first place. This will make it even harder for you to get them to eat the main meal in the future. Reward your kids in other ways, stickers, stamps, star charts or a special story.
Always eat at the table
Kids thrive on routine and consistency. Your children will respond better at meal times if they are up, in their highchair, at the dinner table with the rest of the family for most of their meal times as you can. Toddlers and even children should always be sitting down while eating, it’s never recommended to let your child wander around while eating.
If you’re looking for more help with feeding fussy toddlers or support in implementing strategies, need some extra inspiration, or would like some individualised advice on healthy eating, book in with one of our experienced dietitians online at The Healthy Eating Clinic or call us on 6174 4663.