A common mistake with fussy eaters
I have spoken to many parents who get in touch because when they go away on holiday it really shines a negative light on their child’s eating. In fact, it may not even be a holiday, it may be a restaurant, or the neighbours, or a relative’s house.
Often, when we’re at home, we make all sorts of accommodations for our child. Unfortunately, this is a common mistake with fussy eaters. Over time we stop even being conscious about how much we are compromising.
Being in a new environment, especially when surrounded by friends or relatives, suddenly shows us how far from “ideal” our child’s eating is.
Turning around that common mistake with fussy eaters
When we do make these compromises we are accidentally often hindering rather than helping our picky eater. My advice is always to ask ourselves “are we enabling or are we supporting” in any situation regarding our child and their fussy eating.
Is what we’re doing enabling our child to continue being as fussy around food? For example, if we have a child who loves Cocopops and we serve that every morning, this reinforces their fussy behaviour. Especially if they are also able to eat Weetbix but just prefer the Cocopops, for example (who doesn’t prefer chocolate!)
As parents it’s easy to fall into a routine where we make our child happy, ensure they put something in the tummy and have firm favourites we revolve weekly.
How can we not make that common mistake with fussy eaters?
1. Happy is good. Making our child happy is important and in fact, creating comfort around food is a core goal. But there is a big difference between serving them foods that they are able to eat and only serving favourites.
It’s good to take a step back and look at whether we are focused on making them happy, but at the expense of variety. The less foods they tackle on a weekly basis the more narrow their diet can become.
2. Eating is good. Putting something in the tummy is again really positive. We want our child to get used to coming to the table and eating. Not eating can have all sorts of negative repercussions:
i) If a child doesn’t eat they frequently stop expecting to eat.
ii) Not eating on a regular basis can override internal cues that govern a child’s hunger signals and therefore make them want to eat.
iii) The table is not the place to have arguments over food so making sure they can eat something starts the meal off on the right foot. No one comes to the table happily if there is nothing there they enjoy.
3. We are in charge. We make sure we’re not giving in to demands for favourites just to get something eaten. It is absolutely fine to rotate through foods that our child is able to eat, even if it’s not their preference for that day.
I would though recommend not making another common mistake with fussy eaters which is attempting to get all the good foods in at dinner and then feeling deflated when the broccoli or the chicken gets refused.
In fact, I recommend experimenting earlier in the day with foods that are a little different, rather than at night. Everyone is more tired and ‘over everything’ later in the day and we also don’t want hungry tummies before bed.
4. Having the same foods on repeat. It is really common for picky eaters to food ‘jag’. This is when they want to eat the same food over and over again. It may go on for days, weeks or even months. Every time they have a choice they pick the nuggets or the pasta, for example.
This is very easy for us as we know what to buy and we know it will get eaten. Unfortunately, it often leads to burn out. Most parents of older children who get into food jags see this play out. They nugget, nugget, nugget and then suddenly don’t eat them again.
When we do serve our child the same foods over and over, it also reinforces our child’s desire to eat favourites and only those. Our brain loves routines, loves to know what’s going to happen and feels more comfortable with the familiar.
I’m sure we are all aware of how dependent we can become on the cup of coffee, the glass of wine, the piece of chocolate to give us the warm fuzzies. However, I am not suggesting removing these, just mixing things up a little.
It’s fine to have the favourite cup of coffee, but for our child it is often the favourite cereal, followed by the favourite sandwich and then the plain pasta or the nuggets, for example.
When the diet is narrow then repeating through those favourites builds an almost psychological barrier for accepting other foods.
So instead of that common mistake with fussy eaters, what can we do?
1. New foods. Introducing new foods is really important for fussy eaters. However, this is not always easy as new foods can be scary.
In which case, making small changes to accepted food or offering slightly different foods is the way to start. The more food hesitant a child, the smaller changes may have to be.
In fact, with super selective eaters it may just be changing the way foods are presented or served. Or adding something teeny tiny to it.
2. Rotate not repeat. Even if introducing new foods seems impossible and even if your child is on a super limited diet, you can still rotate foods. That means that if they have two choices of cereal you serve one Monday and the other Tuesday.
Similarly, if they will eat crackers or pretzels, serve one for morning snack and one for afternoon snack. Doing this helps a little to guard against the food jag where the same food is eaten over and over.
You may get some resistance when doing this but it’s a great way to ensure that your child maximises the spread of nutrients, textures and variety in their diet and helps to guard against foods that get dropped as they are ‘burned out’ on eating them!
Hopefully, this has given you a few new ways to look at food for a child who has a restrictive diet. However, if you would like more support please feel free to get in touch or click on the calendar on the website to book in for a no-cost initial appointment.
Judith, MA Cantab (Cambridge University), Post Grad Dip Psychology (Massey University), 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/