My fussy eater never eats the veggies I keep serving
“I’ve been putting the carrots on Ben’s plate for weeks and he totally ignores them”.
“The dietician told me to just serve the veggies and my daughter would learn to eat them”.
“I feel like I’m wasting so much food. I keep serving Cooper a bit of what we eat but he never eats it”.
I hear these statements on a daily basis. Many of the strategies advocated about how to teach a child to eat food are very similar. As parents wanting to do the best for our child we read about what’s going to be helpful and then try to put it into practice.
But what if we do serve the food over and over again and absolutely nothing happens?
Let’s first look at why a fussy eater often doesn’t eat the veggies, or other food that you feel that you have served repeatedly.
While we are doing this we can also look at things that may be helpful. However, be mindful that often the small details are just as important as the big issues. I’d like to tell a story to illustrate this:
As a lifelong insomniac, I really struggled to sleep for the first 47 years of my life. I too had read all the tips and tricks. I had changed my sleep routines, cut out caffeine, redone the bedroom. Everything was in order, but I still wasn’t sleeping.
What Kim did was pick apart every single thing that contributed to sleep and made little tweaks. She also gifted me a whole new way to look at sleep and sleeping. This was probably the biggest change and possibly the most important.
If I had to pick the most valuable ‘one thing’ I teach families I work with, it’s similar, it’s the way they approach food and feeding and the way they evaluate progress.
Let me share a little of that philosophy here as it’s definitely not about the magic bullet, the ‘one thing’ that will change everything.
Why a fussy eater never eats the veggies and what to do
1. Discomfort – many children are not comfortable around veggies, or new foods, or just food. There is a spectrum from let me eat anything that is put in front of me to I eat Jatz crackers, white toast with butter and plain spiral pasta.
Part of building that comfort is getting really familiar with new foods. Think of foods that are eaten in different cultures that seem very challenging. If those were part of everyday meals they would get less ‘weird’ seeming over time.
When you are serving the carrot over and over again your child is building comfort with it even if they do totally ignore it. I can retell dozens of stories of children who have seemingly wilfully ignored a food and then just all of a sudden, with no warning, eaten it.
Just like reading to our child and them not reading back, things are happening under the surface that we can’t gauge.
So, the advice to serve and serve and serve again is a good one. However, we also must be mindful that we are not making it into any sort of battle or power play. Battles are the death of eating, especially new foods!
2. Consistency – we may feel as though we have served the carrot a million times, but have we really? Did the carrot go on the plate for weeks and then wasn’t getting eaten so we felt like it was a waste of time?
Or do we serve the carrot but only when we have the energy?
The carrot needs to be like a book if we’re teaching someone to read. Having the carrot on offer over and over is important.
3. Interacting – for any child, building comfort is essential and is the foundational stuff we do every day. However, if a child is super uncomfortable around food, has sensory sensitivities or is on the autism spectrum, for example, just serving new foods is probably not quite enough.
Even if your child is just averagely fussy though, interaction really helps.
Interacting is taking the step beyond the ‘passive seeing’ that happens when something is on the plate or on the table. It is being able to touch a food and possibly interact in other ways like smelling or even licking it.
However, it’s critical to do these things gently, in fun ways if possible, and without pressure. It could also be that this is away from the table. In fact, generally I would advise that we don’t do this at dinner – unless it’s in keeping with a relaxed and fun meal.
4. Pressure – any sort of pressure that makes a child feel upset, angry, or defensive is going to work against eating. If foods are on the plate but there is a lot of pressure to ‘perform’ then it is likely to kill the appetite. Flight, fight, or freeze kicks in with any sort of adrenaline rush.
People in general are also less likely to do something because they feel they ‘have to’. Me cleaning the toilets of my own free will is very different to being ordered to do it. Similarly, if children feel they are obliged to eat something it can make it more difficult.
Sure, we want them to eat the carrot, but almost having to force them to do so is not the best approach. Any sort of extreme longing from us for them to do something inadvertently adds pressure.
5. Approach – this is one of my favourite topics!
If we go into meals with the attitude that putting a carrot on our child’s plate is a waste of time, it probably is! How we approach food and feeding is a critical part of the puzzle.
Believing that our child can eat the carrot helps them believe they can too. We are always very positive and future looking when it comes to reading and swimming, it’s important that we bring that same approach to eating.
I hope this has inspired you to keep serving the veggies if you are already doing so. If you are not, or have given up, perhaps this will encourage you to give it a whirl.
Eating is a complex social, emotional, physical, and psychological process and many factors contribute to eating well or eating challenges. There is no one thing that magically makes things go right or wrong. It’s a combination of factors. However, there are some basic actions that really do help, even if they don’t seem to!
Judith, MA Cantab, 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/