While fussy eating can be complex and varies with individual kids, how we interact with food around our kids can be very influential. Having said that, I always say to my clients “what’s done is done” so regardless of what has happened in the past, it’s important to focus on what we can do in the present and into the future.
- Lots of focus on nutrients
While we may think that focusing on nutrients helps our kids eat better, it may not be the case. Some kids are particularly sensitive to this perceived pressure and the result may have unintended consequences, including reduced appetite or negative feelings towards a certain food or meals in general.
Try: Focus less on the nutrients and more on fostering a healthy relationship with food. One simple way of doing this is to lighten the atmosphere at mealtime by chatting, being silly, telling jokes, labelling the food with cool names like ‘x-ray vision carrots’. Even small, simple changes like relabeling food can positively change kids’ views. This is particularly important for eaters who maybe somewhat anxious and need to take their time to learn about different foods. Research supports this by showing that fun meals reduce picky eating. Think simply in terms of whether everyone including yourself is enjoying eating together. And of course; as kids relax more, they are more likely to eat better and consume more nutritious food.
- “Just two more bites of food please”.
This is a line many of us use to ensure our kids eat particular foods like veggies. However, this may not be the most ideal way to get our kids to eat. One reason for this is that we (as ‘external bodies’) are dictating how much our kids should eat, rather than allowing our kids to learn to self-regulate their own food intake.
Try: One alternative to this is to serve a small portion of each of the various foods on their plate and encourage your child to have a bite of each of the foods before they look for more of one food. This ensures that your child isn’t filling up on their favourite like pasta first and then having no room for the less preferable foods.
- Asking ‘What would you like to eat?’
While most kids crave more control, starting usually when they’re a toddler, research shows that kids who are given too many food choices don’t choose wisely. Its better if children are given some guidance, yet still ensuring they have some freedom.
Try: Choices are a great way to give the ‘much-sought after control’, for example, let your child pick one of two foods. This works best if you always ensure there are at least one or two “reasonable” foods served at all times. The reasonable food means that it’s acceptable to even the most fussy of eaters, for example, a small portion of fruit, pasta etc.
Kids can also be involved in picking other aspects of the meal including what cup they use etc. However, adults are in the best position to plan meals and snacks, both in terms of timing and what is served. Obviously some flexibility is necessary, for example, you can ask if your child is ready to eat now or in 15 minutes?
- Keeping it too clean.
While we may not appreciate messy eaters, research shows that kids benefit from exploring food, whether its touching, licking, smelling of the food etc. This helps fussy eaters in particular develop more tolerance for new foods or foods that they are wary of.
Try: Encourage your kids to play with food and explore the different properties of foods including trickier-to-eat wet, hot or mushy foods. For some, food exploration happens best away from the table so there is no expectation of eating. Getting your kids involved can happen in lots of ways including food planning (like picking 1 recipe out of a choice of 2) shopping, food preparation and cooking etc.
- Not offering foods once they’re rejected
Often we do not continue offering foods that have been rejected by our kids. Research shows that children have to be exposed to a new food around 10 times before they’ll actually eat it; though, the number varies depending on the particular food. Research also shows that most of us give up after 4 or 5 attempts.
Try: Young kids don’t have stable taste preferences and are still exploring. They don’t always know what they like, for example, new foods. Therefore it’s vital to keep exposing kids to a variety of foods and the same food in a variety of ways so they can become more accustomed to the food and more comfortable with it.
Don’t take what your child says about food so seriously. Don’t assume that once rejected that food is always rejected. A food might be rejected at a certain time for a number of reasons other than not liking the food including not being hungry, wanting to play instead etc.
This article first appeared in http://www.familyfriendlyhq.ie