5 proven ways to help fussy eaters
Fussy eating is an ongoing frustration for any parent with a child that is not eating variety. Eating happens on average five times a day, seven days per week. When something is going wrong, we are confronted with it over and over again. Picky eating is also often a public experience. Most social occasions revolve around food.
However, often the little things we do every day can make a big difference although I know from my experience that one of the challenges is keeping going in the face of resistance. A child refusing food is normal but in general they are doing it because eating for them is difficult.
If many foods are not within the comfort zone, it makes sense to be hesitant to taste them, to accept them and to add them to the menu. Over time habits are built and it does become more difficult to break out of them.
But when we stop trying to help our child to move forwards the habits get reinforced and they get stuck, as do we. So, I was thinking of small things that we can put into our routines that really do help and came up with this list:
5 proven ways we can help fussy eating
1. Patience – I am one of the least patient people on the planet (my family will back me up on this) so I feel a little hypocritical talking about this. But never-the-less I have seen the best success come for parents who are able to be patient.
Supporting a picky eater to eat more widely is often a long game, a marathon not a sprint. The more uncomfortable our child is around food, the longer it will probably take and therefore the more patient we need to be.
In my experience one of the places that parents fail most often is in giving up too soon. They use a strategy to support their child and after a while decide it’s not working so give up. Often things do take time. Knowing which strategies to implement and then doing them consistently is key.
When we have a child that has been fussy around food for a long time, those months of building habits cannot be unpicked in days. If it has taken four years to get to where we are now, we cannot expect to undo all those habits in four days.
Habits around food are also notoriously powerful. Changing to more positive patterns does take a time and patience and consistency.
It is also essential to recognize progress. Frequently our child is showing signs of moving forwards, but we are not seeing them as such.
2. Expect ‘NO’s’ – I have begun telling any parent that works with me to expect a lot of ‘no’s’. It is our child’s default position. ‘No’ is easy. ‘No’ keeps them safe. ‘No’ is habit.
If we have a toddler, it is even developmentally normal. Firstly, from an evolutionary point of view saying no kept them safe when journeying away from mum. That drive is still hard-wired centuries later.
Toddlers are also testing the boundaries of their independence and control. Saying ‘no’ in all contexts is exactly what they are supposed to be doing. It does not make for easy parenting, but it is normal and expected!
One of the best pieces of advice is to not enter into the battle. A neutral approach around food is the best policy. Even if they do not eat at a meal, food is available at the next eating opportunity so there should be no ability for them to hold us to ransom (we don’t negotiate with ‘terrorists’ ).
In older children ‘no’ is a safety/habit response. Expecting that enables us to 1) appreciate that ‘no’ does not mean never, it means not now and 2) focus on ways we are able to present foods without opening the door to a ‘no’ as best as is practicable.
For example, if we ask a child ‘do you want this new chicken breast recipe instead of a favoured nugget?’, it’s pretty obvious what the answer will be. How can we approach this situation differently?
Also, if we stop trying our child is unlikely to move forwards or even worryingly begin to go backwards.
3. Serve what we want eaten – it’s very tempting (and perfectly normal) to serve the nuggets or the pasta, as we know this is a slam dunk option. At the end of a long day knowing that our child is going to happily eat what we’ve cooked works on so many levels.
The problem with only serving favourites is of course that it does not add new foods to the menu. It can even mean our child goes backwards as they get bored with the current ‘favourite’ and drop it.
I know that serving new foods that do not get eaten is frustrating and wasteful, but we can often do this in a way that is less so. Tiny portions are less intimidating and more likely to be eaten and this helps with wastage.
I’m also not suggesting we serve our child a lasagne they have never eaten instead of the plain pasta they are happy with and setting up an ‘eat or go hungry’ situation. More, that we are consistently offering new foods alongside favourites.
It does take time to learn to love something. We can help the process by serving foods in various ways, new environments and even in the company of new people. We learn by repetition, and this is how that comfort builds.
4. Eating together – we’re always told, about the positives of family meals, but the bottom line is that the research stacks up! It also doesn’t have to be a big performance number! Just sharing a snack with our child is valuable.
When we eat with our child we are modelling.
Eating together though, is less about the eating and more about building relationships. Even the fussiest eaters can love meals when they are about bonding and family.
It is also why it is critical not to make meals the site of battles and angst. The more relaxed we are, the more likely we are to eat, so it is important to create a loving and warm atmosphere at the table (think reading and how this is a pleasurable activity).
Starting with family meals right from the start is the easiest way to make this work. However, if you’ve missed this boat, you can still start. Sometimes this is best done in small steps, so everyone adjusts.
5. Gratitude/appreciation – creating a culture of thanks for having enough food, for having choices and for the person who has shopped, prepped, and served the food is important.
Too often we forget how much effort and love goes into putting food on the table. Respect for that and for the food being served is important. It is also why we use positive words of love and thanks around meals.
Eating pleasurably is a great way to show our child how to enjoy food. It is also why eating the foods we love is important. Long term we are aiming for our children to eat the same foods as us and seeing us appreciating meals and mealtimes is critical.
For this reason it is important not to ‘dumb down’ our choices so we become disillusioned with cooking and eating.
Fixing fussy eating usually requires multiple actions done consistently over the course of months. The good news is though, that families have shown that these strategies do make a difference. Fabulously, much of this slots easily into normal routines.
If you have a friend or relative that is struggling around food and feeding for their child please feel free to share.
Judith is an AOTA accredited picky eating advisor and internationally certified nutritional therapist. She works with 100+ families every year resolving fussy eating and returning pleasure and joy to the meal table.
She is also mum to two boys and the author of Creating Confident Eaters and Winner Winner I Eat Dinner. Her dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/