There is a huge pressure on parents to feed their children a healthy diet, and we know that children who consume healthy foods are more likely to continue these healthy eating patterns into adulthood. As such, it can be a real source of frustration for parents when they have a fussy eater on their hands.
For many toddlers, fussy eating is a normal phase, and with the right support they will eventually grow out of it. It is estimated that around 22% of children over 30 months of age will show some fussy eating behaviour.1
The following are some tips that may help to make meal times a more positive experience for the family, while supporting your child to overcome fussy eating.
1. Divide the responsibility
Parents should be responsible for what food is provided, and when and where the food is eaten. Children are responsible for how much they eat.
When given the choice on what to eat, most children will go for the foods they know and like, which limits their exposure to different foods, and therefore opportunities to learn to like a variety of healthy foods.
Aim to offer your child a variety of healthy foods at regular intervals throughout the day. Providing food at set meal and snack times and limiting grazing is important for ensuring that children will be hungry enough to eat at each mealtime, and eliminates lack of hunger as potential cause of the fussy eating. If children are allowed enough time between each meal to get hungry, they are more likely to try something new at the mealtime. Aim for around 1.5-2 hours between each meal for toddlers.
When choosing foods to offer your child, keep in mind the child’s food preferences and eating skills. Offer them something familiar at each meal or snack, while also offering foods that they may usually reject. This will allow them to fill up on a food they are comfortable with, while also exposing them to new foods.
And remember, you are not an a la carte restaurant! If your toddler refuses foods at the meal or snack, don’t offer them something else. They will quickly learn that if they don’t eat what is offered, they will have to wait until the next meal and are much less likely to refuse a food to get something that they know they already like.
It is important that the child decides how much food they will eat. Only they know what their tummies feel like, and whether they are truly hungry or full.
Children’s appetites can change from day to day depending on several factors, and their bodies are great at regulating their intake based on their body’s needs. Trust that if you are providing food at regular intervals with enough time to get hungry, then they will eat the amount of food that is right for them.
2. Keep mealtimes positive
Sitting down to a meal with a fussy toddler can be very stressful. However, it is important for each exposure to a new or typically refused food to be a positive experience. Children can’t learn to like a food if they feel uncomfortable or unhappy every time they see it, or if they are feeling pressured to try something they’re not comfortable with.
Try taking the focus off food. Taking the time to chat about other topics – such as how each person’s day was – not only takes the stress away from new or disliked foods being on the plate or table, but also provides an opportunity for quality family time.
Regular and positive family mealtimes have been shown to have benefits not just for helping with fussy eating, but also for children’s emotional and social wellbeing.
Eating together at the table also allows you to model positive attitudes and behaviours around food. Talking about what you like about your food, or showing that you genuinely enjoy what you are eating may give your child more confidence to try it. If Mum or Dad love it, it must be worth at least a little taste, right?
3. Let them play with their food
Positive mealtimes for children include having the freedom to play with food and to make a mess. Children learn through play, and food is no different.
Playing with food allows them to explore the texture, sight, smell, and other properties of the food. Play helps children to become familiar with and ‘get to know’ foods, and will help them to feel more comfortable with eating them.
4. Turn off the distractions
Having a toy, tablet, or phone at the table or eating in front the TV may seem like a good way to get a fussy eater to the table without any complaints. However, when children are busy with a screen or toy at mealtimes, they have little opportunity to engage with their food.
They may be too distracted to recognise their own hunger and fullness signals and end up not eating because their minds are on other things.
They may also completely forget that they have eaten a food before, as they were too distracted to notice that they had eaten it last time and end up refusing a food as it is still unfamiliar to them.
5. Be patient – and persistent!
Research shows that it takes multiple exposures to a food to learn to like that food. For some children, this could be up to 10, 20, or even more exposures. This exposure to food doesn’t have to include eating it.
Any opportunity to positively interact with a food – for example seeing someone else eat it, playing with it, helping to buy or cook it – is an exposure that can help them become more familiar with the food, and eventually work their way to having a taste, and maybe even learning to like it!
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to healthy eating! If you would like help finding the healthy eating habits that work well for you and your family, our lovely team of dietitians can help to turn nutrition principles into practical and achievable habits. Get in contact with our team at The Healthy Eating Clinic or call us on 02 6174 4663.
At The Healthy Eating Clinic, we want to equip you with habit-based nutrition advice so that you can eat well for the rest of your life! Make an appointment today
- Wolstenholme H, Kelly C, Hennessy M, Heary C. Childhood fussy/picky eating behaviours: a systematic review and synthesis of qualitative studies. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2020;17(1):2. Published 2020 Jan 3. doi:10.1186/s12966-019-0899-x