10 Lockdown strategies for fussy eaters
Fussy eaters by definition are less comfortable around foods than competent eaters. Often this means that when things are more stressful or uncertain the eating suffers.
I have spoken to quite a few parents who have found their child’s eating seems to have got worse since they have been confined to the house.
There are also quite a few picky eaters who eat more widely away from home so when locked down their range of foods naturally shrinks.
On the positive side, parents may have more time as they are not traveling to work every day. There may also be parents who are unable to work from home or two parents at home when usually there isn’t.
If eating is not going as well as usual, or, if you would like to work on improving the variety eaten while there is the opportunity to do so, then let us look at some strategies to support that!
10 Strategies for helping fussy eaters in lockdown
1. Structure. Most children are used to routines. Although these can drive us crazy and it is lovely to escape from them sometimes, they are also comforting. The brain loves to know what is going to happen and when.
If our child is uncomfortable with change, it is especially important to give them structure as it provides a sense of continuity.
You can make the structure as rigid or as flexible as you wish, but especially around food, knowing what is going to happen and when can be a real positive.
2. Regular meals. Following on from that, having set times for eating naturally gives the day structure. Having breakfast, lunch, and dinner at approximately the same time creates a routine.
In my house we stick to normal patterns around food for the most part and so we naturally work around those as benchmarks for the rest of the day.
If snacks are part of the routine, then having them spaced during the day is also a great idea.
Regular meals also help to create feelings of hunger. If we are used to eating at a certain time, we often get hunger cues at those times. If we have a child that is not super enthused about eating, this may be helpful.
3. Snacking. I know many parents with a fussy eater – especially one who has a very limited diet or does not eat much – feel excited when their child asks to eat. The natural reaction is to be excited and find food.
However, if these are snack-type foods – which are far easier to eat – then it can make eating other foods more difficult.
For young children too, having set snack times is important for building up food competency and an appropriate approach to food. Grazing can create unhealthy habits that are difficult to change.
Grazing also works against us as it is not the way our bodies are designed to work. It is important to eat, let it digest and eat again. Continually ‘topping up’ is generally not advised.
Small and frequent meals, yes, but just having a handful of this or that when we feel a little hungry – not so much!
4. Be prepared. Planning – even minimally – always helps to keep things on track. This is probably more true during lockdowns when shopping can be tricky and as parents we are often juggling multiple things.
Perhaps packing a lunchbox as usual the night before or in the morning takes a bit of pressure off later in the day as everything is ready to go for snacks and lunch.
Maybe it is planning which meals will be possible with the groceries available.
What makes life more stressful as a parent, and often less effective for children is getting to lunchtime and then realizing that the three things that are always easy and a winner are not possible with what is in the fridge!
5. Eat together. I know that lockdown can often be crazy, especially if we are attempting to work and child wrangle at the same time. But we all have to eat, so doing it together makes a whole lot of sense.
Eating together does, over time, help change the approach to food from something that needs to be done, to a social occasion. If it is not something you are currently doing, it can take time, but is definitely worth considering.
Children eating on their own – especially those who are not that into food – can get bored quickly and want to get down. If meals are where we are serving the nutrient dense foods, this is obviously where we want our children filling up. Eating with them gives an added incentive to stay put!
Food is about more than just the physical act of eating. Creating a warm and joyful occasion really does help long-term with the approach and feelings around food and eating.
Having meals and even snacks at the table encourages better eating too. Crashing in front of the TV is tempting, but it doesn’t build on the other skills that help a child become a more competent eater.
6. Include the children. Part of the discomfort around lockdowns is the uncertainty. I know for me it is a huge one. Not knowing how long or what is going to happen, works against my love of planning and control!
Children are in the same boat not knowing when they are going back to Kindy or school or when they can get back to the normal fun stuff they enjoy.
This can result in a more rigid approach to food as it is something that they are easily able to control. You cannot force a child to eat so they do have that power.
Although not a magic bullet, giving more control around food can be positive and done simply. Perhaps it is choosing between x or y at each meal.
Maybe it is picking two favourite dinner meals for the week. Or could it be picking which cookies or crackers we buy at the supermarket?
One word of caution, too many choices is often overwhelming. Offering two options is a good number.
7. New foods. It is easy, and especially when foods can be more difficult to come by, to just serve the foods we know are a winner for our children. But, the more opportunity our child has to see and interact with new foods, the easier it is, long term, to eat them.
Developing a familiarity with foods can frequently be done in fun or relaxed ways away from the table. It is the reason that gardening, cooking, and preparing foods are all useful. Again, this is not magic wand getting the children eating something tomorrow, but long term it is more valuable than we may realise.
Spending more time at home can create new opportunities to involve the children. Perhaps for older children or those who have more extreme discomfort around food it could be helping wash fruit or vegetables that have come from the supermarket, for example.
8. Removing pressure. The pressure to push our child to eat can creep in, especially when we are a little more on edge. Wasting food is also more of a challenge when it is harder to come by.
However, focusing on what our child is eating can inadvertently put more pressure on them. If we want them to eat, the more relaxed they are, the more likely that is to happen.
Having set mealtimes, serving a variety of foods, and then handing the responsibility over to our child to decide what to eat, can make a big difference.
9. Modeling. Our children learn far more from watching us than they do from us telling them to do things!
Modeling eating a wide variety of foods and doing it pleasurably shows our child in pictures how to approach food. It is why eating with our child is super helpful. They get to watch their most important adult showing them how to do things well.
10. Breathe! Our child’s eating could well get worse to start with during lockdown.
Knowing that may happen and seeing it as a temporary blip can help manage emotions although it is scary to watch a child with a limited diet struggle more.
Putting into place some of the strategies listed, approaching meals calmly and positively and not getting emotional if things go wrong can really help.
If you are finding lockdown challenging and are worried about your child’s eating, please feel free to get in touch. I am happy to speak to parents who may need additional support or a listening ear.
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/