Around 80% of families I see in my clinic are struggling to increase variety in their children’s diet. Time, effort and expense spent preparing healthy and nutritious meals and snacks, only to have a little one turn their nose up is understandably a stressful experience – for everyone!
Fussy eating, which surfaces between the ages of 2-6, is thankfully a phase most children will grow out of. However, the strategies we implement to deal with their food refusal, along with the food choices we offer them during this stage can have a huge impact on how willing they are to try new foods and how their eating habits are ultimately shaped.
A small percentage of children will require intervention as a result of physiological or psychological reasons for their ongoing food refusal. These children are classified as “problem feeders” whose difficulties with food can be due to a myriad of reasons: oral motor delays, sensory issues, gastrointestinal disturbances, anxiety food-related disorders and having low muscle tone. In these instances, it’s recommended to seek expert support from dieticians, nutritionists, speech therapists, occupational therapists and/or paediatricians.
In my clinic and fussy eating workshops, I’m always keen to manage expectations around what “success” looks like? Each family’s situation is unique and success with mealtimes needs to be measured accordingly. For one child, moving from one vegetable to two vegetables daily is a huge success. For another child, eating a meatball in sauce is a big win.
Listen to the latest episode of our podcast for (imperfect) parents below. Post continues after audio.
Ideally, we want to move away from a typical fussy eaters ‘white’ diet, filled with refined carbohydrates such as white rice, pasta, cheese and sugary processed snacks, and work to include nutritious foods such as vegetables, slow-release carbohydrates, iron-rich protein and healthy fats.
Change does not happen overnight, we need to recognise that it’s a slow process, especially where fussy eating is concerned. Praising small changes along the way is of utmost importance.
Here are my top strategies for overcoming food refusal:
Encouraging children to touch, smell and engage with their food helps to desensitise them towards foods that they are uncertain about and reluctant to eat. Getting them to put items in a shopping trolley, helping prepare food at meal-times and carrying it to the table. Positivity and patience is important. Don’t feel disheartened if the response isn’t immediate. Persist, freeze what isn’t eaten and offer it up again.
Make new foods familiar by repeatedly offering them in a calm, familial environment. Repeated offerings of unfamiliar foods aids in helping children become comfortable with new flavours and textures. Try offering theses same foods in different ways, cut into fun shapes, assembled in colour patterns or even try different ways of cooking (eg. roasted carrots instead of raw.)
3. Messy Play
A therapeutic technique for babies and children who have underlying sensory issues. Encouraging them to touch and explore their food or attempt to feed themselves with their fingers or a spare spoon is very powerful way to desensitise them to new foods. Messy play can take place away from mealtimes, ensuring there is no pressure to eat the food which is being explored. Oat dough or cooked spaghetti are ideal foods for messy play activities
4. Family Meal-time
Try to eat together as often as possible, so that you’re able to model healthy and genuine appreciation of nutritious food. Ensure that family meals are carried out in a fun, warm and relaxing manner to ease any anxiety being experienced by the fussiest member of the family.
5. "Fun facts"
Helping kids to make the connection that what we eat helps us to feel strong and healthy (or will make us run faster or jump higher) is a great way to educate in a fun way. Reading books about the benefits of health and various vitamins is a creative way to encourage acceptance of healthy and nutritious foods.
6. Work with what they already like
For instance if you really want to get your child to eat homemade potato chips or sweet potato chips and you know they love crunchy food, it’s best not to make huge, fat wedge-shaped chips. Rather, using a peeler, grate the potatoes really finely and bake them for 25-30 minutes (avoid burning them). They will come out crispy and delicious. Once your child is happy to eat these you can offer it in a different form, maybe as a larger chip or as mashed potato
7. Offer choice
Children like to feel they have some control when it comes to food. Many mums, including myself, do not want to become short order cooks or fall into the habit of making five different meals each evening. However, it is particularly important for fussy children to be given a choice between two healthy options. For example: 'We can have fish fingers or lamb koftas for dinner – which would you like?' Vary the choices as the seasons change.
For example: 'So now we are heading into winter, would you like a soup or stew?” Give toddlers a choice of where they want to sit and ask them which plate they'd like. Give younger children a choice between two foods that you have already prepared. Take older children along to purchase beef mince and ask if they would prefer meatballs or bolognaise.
8. Small portions on large plates
This is a visual technique and helps to prevent children from feeling overwhelmed by the quantity of food on offer.
9. Make mealtimes fun
As hard as this one may be for frustrated families, it’s important to try and make mealtimes as enjoyable as possible. Making pictures out of vegetable sticks and dips, singing songs, telling jokes and sharing stories. Invest in a floor mat or protective cover and work out how you can make your life as easy as possible, to make sure that you are relaxed.
10. Praise and Encouragement
Children love praise and positivity breeds positivity. You could use reward charts and outings to celebrate certain “milestones” to remind your child how well they are doing and how far they’ve come.
Don’t forget to reward yourselves too - Remember to celebrate your family’s achievements and to be gentle with yourselves along the way. Instilling healthy and nutritious food associations in our children is an ongoing process - and is definitely more of a marathon than a race.
You can find more from Mandy Sacher at www.wholesomechild.com.au