Despite being common and relatively normal, fussy eating can place a huge amount of stress on parents and families who battle with it on a daily basis. While there are no quick fixes, there are several things that you can do to help reduce your stress and worry and improve the variety of foods your little one is eating.
Fussy eating is characterized by the toddler or child eating a limited amount of food, restricting intake particularly of vegetables, being unwilling to try new foods, and having strong food preferences often leading parents to provide their child a meal different from the rest of the family Statistics show that fussy eating can affect anywhere between 10-50% of children and that it is associated with family stress and conflict at mealtimes, high levels of parent concern and frustration and child anxiety. Child factors which may affect fussy eating include age, personality, tactile issues, emotional regulation and cognitive development. Other important factors include food preferences, genetics and environmentals factors such as peer influence, the media and parental influence.
Most of the research on fussy eating management has looked at the role of parents or caretakers. Research shows that creating a positive feeding environment, allowing children to develop an awareness of their own hunger and satiety cues and creating a division of responsibility in which parents provide the meal and the child decides how much to eat are associated with lower levels of fussy eating. Alternatively while negative feeding practices such as pressuring children to eat and using food as a reward for behaviour are associated with higher levels of fussy eating.
Here are some of our top tips for helping manage fussy eating.
Create a relaxed dinner table
It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that fussy eating is all about the food, but mealtime actually begins well before the first fork-full of food touches your tongue (or gets flung across the room!). The dinner table atmosphere plays a huge role in setting the scene for the meal ahead.
For youngsters, learning to eat with the family is vital. By simply eating and enjoying our own dinner we are instantly modelling a healthy, non-fussy approach to meals. Rather than crying out ‘dinner’s ready’ once everything is sitting on the table ready to go, try to establish a pre-meal routine to get everyone ready for dinner, such as packing toys away, washing hands and setting the table together. If not everyone in your household is home to eat at the same time, try to make sure that at least one adult is able to eat with the child to model this positive behaviour.
Make sure everyone is sitting comfortably in a chair (or highchair) with good back support, and for little legs that do not reach the ground, offer a box or small step as a footrest to make it easy to stay balanced and relaxed.
Meal times that are long and drawn out tend to be a stressful and negative experience for everyone. A time limit of about 20 minutes should be more than enough for everyone to eat what they want, then move on. Remember, children are able to decide how much they want to eat – being forced to ‘clear the plate’ or sit at the table for hours on end is rarely helpful in developing healthy eating habits in the long run.
Aim to keep meals distraction free (no screens for kids or parents please!), happy and relaxed and for younger kids, learn to expect (and even encourage) a bit of mess. Exploring new foods can be a little like tasting a new wine – we tend to swirl, smell, sniff and effectively ‘play with’ the wine before we even take a sip. Let kids do the same with new foods!
Offer a variety of foods, and don’t give up
We have all heard that persistence is key with offering new foods to fussy kids. The current research confirms this, showing that it can take up to 15 or even 20 exposures for a new food to become familiar. However, most parents give up after six attempts (understandably!). Continuing to offer these new foods is key in building familiarity, but rather than adding the same thing night after night, allow a few days in between each try, and make sure that new items are offered alongside a food that your child is already comfortable with. It may even be helpful to place the new food on a side plate next to their main plate, especially if your child does not like mixed meals or different foods touching each other.
If you struggle with your kids not wanting to consume meals at all, it may be worthwhile double checking what the rest of their daily intake looks like. Continual grazing through the day or filling up on drinks (especially milk) and snacks before meals will get in the way of having a good appetite when lunch or dinner are served. Aim to establish a routine of breakfast, lunch and dinner each day with a small healthy snack in between.This should help cultivate an awareness of appetite, and to encourage kids to tuck in at main meals.
While it might seem the easy option to begin with, preparing separate meals for a fussy eater is not beneficial longer term.This doesn’t mean they have to eat an identical meal to the older members of the family. Make allowances for younger tastes and preferences, serving age appropriate foods such as finger foods for toddlers or allowing older children to choose their own sauces. Family style meal sharing can also be effective as each person can choose what and how much of each food they want to eat. Offering some guidelines around this can be beneficial, such as encouraging everyone to choose at least two vegetables or try something they haven’t had before.
As they get older, let your kids be involved in the meal planning and preparation process. By including their prefered meals on the menu alongside meals chosen by other family members, it shows that their food preferences do matter.
Have a positive attitude
If you have fussy eaters in your house, it might be a great time to stop and take stock of what your own views on food and the way you model this (even accidentally) to you kids. Make sure that you talk about a variety of healthy foods in a positive light, and try not to predict what your children will like depending on your own preferences – sometimes they will surprise you. Introduce a rule for yourself not to use negative words to describe foods (even brussel sprouts!), opting for more descriptive words instead, such as juicy, chewy or crunchy. Encourage the whole family to think along these lines to minimise the focus on negative food attitudes in your home.
While at the dinner table, aim to not let the conversation turn towards any fussy eating behaviours that are going on. If anything, avoid commenting on foods that have been left behind, as drawing too much attention to these behaviours can reinforce negative behaviours worsening the issue next time. Offer some (low key) verbal praise for foods that were eaten well, or affirm a sibling for doing a great job eating a variety of foods. As hard as it may be, choose not to reward eating a meal by offering desserts or sweets. The research shows that this simply increases our desire for the treat food, but may in fact decrease our desire for the initial meal. Another study also found that kids who were offered food rewards were more likely to be emotional eaters as they grow up.
With positive role modelling and some consistent perseverance, fussy eaters will gradually become more familiar with a variety of foods and generally (be it slowly!) start trying and adding new items to their food-repertoire.
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