5 Common mistakes made with a fussy eater
I was speaking to a group of mums with pre-schoolers who all had challenges around getting the children eating, especially dinner. One thing that came out of the session was how easy it is for us to inadvertently make eating more difficult for our fussy eater and how many of the mistakes are common.
All of us operate with the best of intentions and are following patterns we’ve developed that we feel best support our child with their unique challenges.
Often, we are making a lot of compromises but don’t even notice this in the middle of the busyness and just trying to get food onto the table and eaten.
What I have found when working with 100+ families a year is that we are frequently inserting ourselves into the middle of an equation that is better off without us 🙂
Are we putting ourselves in the middle?
Let’s look at some examples:
1. We decide what our child should eat and put it onto their plate (this can extend to us asking what they’d like and then plating it up).
If we have a picky eater, putting foods onto the plate can start us off on the wrong foot. The first thing they are doing is looking at what we have served and doing the “negative inventory check”. They are wanting to know whether it’s their favourite? Is there anything else on the plate that is a NO? Are the foods touching? Is there icky sauce running around or has the special sauce been added and in the correct amounts?
2. Our main goal is to make sure they eat it what we’ve put on their plate. We have given them the right amount and balance of foods and it’s now important that they eat that.
Making sure our child is eating everything that we served can put a lot of pressure onto them and onto us. The meal becomes about ensuring the plate is cleared and not about enjoying the meal.
Children’s appetites do vary considerably across meals and days. If we are determining volumes it can interfere with their innate ability to gauge how much they should be eating. It is perfectly normal to eat substantially different amounts!
3. We are the cheerleader and are there ready to give praise, to encourage and give our child a gentle push with their eating.
I often ask parents how they would feel if they were out to dinner with their partner and the conversation ran a little like this: “OK Judith, make sure you eat the carrots first, come on, you can do it. Just a little bite. What about the fish sticks, can you eat that half there? One more forkful. Look, look Max is eating his …” You get the picture.
Having a running commentary and directions on what and how to eat is not conducive to feeling relaxed and enjoying a meal.
Who would feel like staying in a restaurant if a partner constantly directed how we were to eat?
“But my child doesn’t eat unless I tell them” parents tell me. This is where habits meet trust meets change. If you’re unsure how to manage this, we can support how to do this effectively. We offer support calls for specific issues.
4. There is a pass and a fail.
When our child eats well we are happy and let them know how excited we are that they have done what we want and eaten all or most of their dinner.
When our child doesn’t eat well there is disappointment and we let them know. They may even forfeit dessert or other positive rewards.
Doing this shows our child that their eating is an important part of pleasing us. Being able to manage a meal, directly impacts our mood and our view of their competence.
If I was out with my partner and didn’t really feel hungry and so ordered a small salad rather than a big meal should he feel disappointed in me? This is obviously an extreme but it’s useful if we take note of how we can inadvertently pass on negative messages.
5. We get stressed, frustrated or annoyed with our child and their eating.
As we’re the most important relationship in our child’s life any emotion we express can impact on them. If they in turn get anxious, upset or angry they are far less likely to eat well.
If I am out with my partner for dinner and he’s cross with me I am not going to be thinking about the food!
The more relaxed we are the more this enables our child to do the same. If we are happy and joyful around food, it supports them to be the same.
6. Bonus Tip! We lead via instructions not examples.
I read a spot on quote: “Bosses tell you what to do, Leaders show you”.
Meals are a great time to put some laundry on, or throw something in the oven whilst the kids are quiet at the table. But when we’re not there we are often directing traffic rather than modeling behaviour.
Our children pick up on our actions far more easily than on our words. If we can spend that time sitting and showing they are far more likely to copy what we’re doing.
What to do
When we become a parent, we expect feeding to be this lovely, organic process and often that is not the case. We are fumbling our way through how to do things and making things up as we go along. Advice from family and friends can sway us one way or another.
We test new theories we’ve read about and we model our behaviour on what we know from our own childhoods and from what we see around us.
But ultimately we’re stuck figuring things out on our own for our unique family and unique child. Looking at some of the common mistakes and doing a personal inventory, is a great place to start.
Asking whether we’re falling into patterns that don’t work but that we keep on doing because we feel defeated.
A little extra help
If you’d like some more personalised help, support and advice, please join our new Facebook group, Creating Confident Eaters, it’s a great place to start. No cost to become a member but we will ask that you fill in the questions posed on entry so we know best how to support you: https://www.facebook.com/groups/222522335605100/
Judith is mum to two boys, a tween and a teen and is the author of Creating Confident Eaters. My dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
I delight in showing parents how to get picky eaters eating in simple, gentle, practical steps that anyone can master. I graduated from Cambridge University and have qualifications in nutrition, parent education and am a trained telephone support worker for ParentHelpline. I am currently working towards a Masters degree in Psychology. I would love to understand more of the “why” behind fussy eating and to eventually spearhead research in this area.