Many families struggle with adding variety to their children’s diets. It can be a daunting and stressful experience having to spend an ample amount of time, money and effort preparing a meal filled with nutrients and minerals only to have your child reject it at first glance.
Fussy eating usually occurs between the early ages of two and six. However, the good news is that it’s a phase that most little ones can grow out of. However, it’s the strategies implemented to handle their food refusal during this time that can ultimately influence their eating habits. Some children require extra effort to overcome these issues due to physiological or psychological reasons. They can be classified as ‘problem feeders’. Their struggles with food can be due to various reasons such as:
- Oral motor delays
- Sensory issues
- Gastrointestinal disturbances
- Low muscle tone
If your child portrays any of these problems, it is ideal to seek advice from a professional such as dieticians, nutritionists, therapists and paediatricians.
Every family’s situation differs; therefore, there Is not one set of strategies that can be applied to every child. Tackling these problems is an ongoing process, and we need to understand the cause, practise patience, and recognise small changes along the way. Here are my top strategies for overcoming fussy eating and food refusal during the early years:
1. Touch and Desensitisation
Desensitisation is where we provide opportunities for children to engage with foods that they would ordinarily avoid in a non-pressurised manner. Encouraging them to touch, smell and engage with their food helps desensitise them towards foods they usually reject. Opportunities to desensitise children to new foods include, during shopping excursions, where they can place items in the shopping cart, cooking with family members, visiting a community garden, growing herbs, and exploring foods in a fun manner without any pressure to eat their ‘disliked’ food.
Familiarise your child with new foods by offering them repeatedly in a calm and engaging manner. This encourages them to be more open to exploring new tastes, flavours, and textures. You can also try offering the same foods in a variety of exciting ways, e.g., chicken can be offered as healthy chicken nuggets, in a stew, made into meatballs or cut into cubes and placed on a kid-friendly skewer.
3. Messy Play
Incorporating messy eating and messy play helps your child’s growth and development. Allowing them to touch, feel and experiment with different food items independently is beneficial, especially for babies and children with existing sensory issues. Hiding small figurines in spaghetti or using oatmeal as playdough, for example, encourages them to get used to the sight, touch, and smell of foods, which they may avoid at mealtimes. Messy play is best done away from the dinner table and remember, it’s not necessary for them to consume the food they are playing with.
4. Family Mealtimes
Children who often eat family meals tend to consume a wider range of foods and tend to be less picky. Family meals provide an opportunity for families to bond and strengthen relations, which will increase self-esteem and build a sense of belonging among children. Parents are also encouraged to model healthy and respectful attitudes toward nutritious foods, as children will pick up on their parent’s cues and be influenced by their culinary preferences. Aim to enjoy family meals in a comforting, warm and relaxing environment to ease anxiety and prevent fussiness.
5. Share Fun Food Facts
Letting children gain knowledge of the science and benefits behind what they are consuming helps them make healthy connections toward food. Learning what is good for their bodies, what makes them strong and what gives them an advantage, like making them run faster or jump higher, is a fun way to educate and expand their minds. You can also introduce reading books about fun vegetable characters and how food goes from farm to table, and what all the different vitamins and nutrients do for their growing bodies.
6. Choices and Control
Like adults, children prefer to be in control, especially when it comes to food. Many parents, including myself, do not want to prepare several meals to satisfy fussy family members. Therefore, it can be helpful to offer a maximum of two choices. For example, you can ask them in the morning (giving yourself plenty of time to prepare ahead), ‘Shall we have fish fingers or chicken lamb koftas for dinner?’ or ‘Would you like soup or stew in this chilly weather?’. Also, give them the freedom of where they want to be seated during mealtimes and let them pick out their favourite cutlery and utensils.
7. Smaller Portions
Offering small portions of unfamiliar foods on large plates is visually helpful to help prevent children from feeling overwhelmed by larger amounts on offer. It also gives them ample space to pick and move the food around the plate.
8. Fun and Engaging Mealtimes
It is important to share positive mealtime experiences. Sing, laugh, share jokes or create patterns on your plate out of vegetables and dips. For fussy eaters, letting go and creating a lighter atmosphere can be the best remedy to combat tension-fuelled mealtimes. Once the pressure reduces, picky eaters will be more calm and relaxed and more likely to attempt new foods.
9. Words of Praise and Encouragement
Like us, our children require and bask in words of praise and encouragement. Positivity breeds positivity. Let them know they are doing great and you are proud of them. Use reward charts, stickers, gifts or adventures to celebrate small wins such as taking a bite out of new food. Helping to set the table. Filling someone’s bucket at the dinner table. Being labelled a fussy eater can often ignite a feeling of failure at mealtimes. The best way to turn this around and start to instil in them a sense of achievement at mealtimes is to praise the small things they are able to do.
When dealing with a fussy eater, remember, that you are doing your best and don’t forget to reward yourself. Be patient as it takes time to motivate a fussy eater to try new food, but with patience and perseverance, it can be done – and parenthood is often a learning process for each of us. Just know you are not alone and celebrate your achievements too!
The author, Mandy Sacher is Australia’s leading pediatric nutritionist, best-selling author, and child nutrition expert, who has previously consulted to hundreds of childcare centres and supported over 80,000 families to implement healthy eating habits through her social media channels, training modules and her international best-selling book Wholesome Child: A Complete Nutrition Guide and Cookbook.
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