A must read for parents of fussy eaters!
The long school holidays are absolutely THE best time to make the changes that are necessary to help resolve fussy eating. If we don’t make changes, how can anything change?
Unfortunately, during school/preschool terms children have a lot going on. Making changes on top of that is possible.
However, picking the start of the school holidays is ideal.
Often, we are also dashing around more during term time, making the whole family a little more stretched than when on holidays.
Sensory overwhelm is a factor for many children, especially the littlies or those with sensory integration challenges.
Okay, so we’re all set to make changes come January. What should we do?
One key but important component
Removing ourselves from the feeding relationship.
This is not something that is frequently discussed. In fact, often the opposite advice is dispensed. We are told how to get our child to do this or that and much of the advice revolves around us ‘being in the middle of that feeding relationship’.
This operates on many levels. Ideally, for our child to have a long-term positive relationship with food and feeding, they must be able to manage internal cues and eat for intrinsic reasons.
When they eating for external reasons this may inadvertently be preventing our child from building a long-term internal trust around food for themselves. Internal confidence and trust is a key part of leaving picky eating behind.
If our child is a fussy eater we often feel we have to do more to support them. To a degree this is true, but it really depends on how that looks in practice. If it means we are featuring more heavily in the middle of the feeding relationship, it’s generally unhelpful.
Let’s look at some specific actions to explain this and explore what this may look like in your house!
1. Micromanaging v choice – having a fussy eater aside from being enormously frustrating, can also be worrying. They eat a narrow diet and often it’s not comprised of the foods that we know are optimal for nutrition.
To ‘help’ we often resort to micromanaging. This is where we are constantly attempting to determine what our child should eat. For example, “have a nibble on this broccoli before you have more bread”.
Instead, consistently serving what we want eaten, but putting more choice in a child’s hands is generally better for long-term better eating.
I know the first thing you may be thinking is “but then they will only eat the bread”. And that may be the case to begin with.
However, is us hovering and dictating every bite working? If the answer is yes, you probably wouldn’t be reading this Also, micromanaging may enable some short-term wins, but long-term it doesn’t build a love of a wide variety of foods.
It also removes agency from our child. They lose the ability to make decisions as all of the important ones are being decided by us. What then happens if we aren’t there – as will be the case when they are older?
2. Bribing v autonomy – I know that bribing is often recommended as a good way to enable a picky eater to eat more of the foods we’d like them to eat.
However, I find that bribery firstly can escalate (who holds all the power?), and secondly, is not building an intrinsic love of food. In fact, it may even do the opposite “eat this yucky stuff so you get the yummy stuff”.
3. Hiding v teaching – again, hiding is a super popular tactic on Dr Google. There are whole cookbooks dedicated to sneaking cauliflower into Mac & Cheese or spinach into muffins.
Now, I am all for integrating fruit and veggies into food if that makes them easier to eat. There is no reason not to add greens to a smoothie or apple sauce to pancakes.
But and it’s a big but. It’s not to ‘trick’ our child into eating things they would not otherwise eat.
Why not hide?:
– It is breaking the trust that is essential for helping a child overcome fussy eating.
– If a child does discover some spinach in a muffin, it could be like us finding a hair in ours (not a nice feeling).
– A child is not learning to eat anything they don’t know about. Long term this will not have them happily munching on spinach and beetroot.
4. Cheering v acknowledgment – when our child masters something like swimming or reading we are conditioned to react with a tonne of praise.
Unfortunately, in an eating sphere this can backfire on us.
Firstly, it is setting a child up to eat to please us, rather than them eating for intrinsic reasons. “I want to eat the broccoli because it tastes nice, and it helps me grow”.
Secondly, it can inadvertently add pressure. Fussy eaters are by definition less comfortable around food than competent eaters. If we cheer when they eat something new, it can set up expectations for the next time that food is served.
If they are then not able to eat the food second time around they can feel like they have failed themselves and us.
5. Volume v innate cues – as a society we have become a little obsessed with portion sizes.
Everywhere we look we are told to have x amount of this or that. Every packet we buy has percentage of daily calories etc.
I find it fascinating as we are all so different. We are a whole unique package of gender, age, genetics and activity.
What is the perfect portion size for most ‘middle-aged’ women may not be at all applicable to me.
In turn, we often portion size for our children. There are many guides which explain how many cups or spoons of this or that they should be eating.
I know this causes enormous amounts of stress for many parents, as their child is not eating according to the plan.
However, as is true of adults, what works for one child is not necessarily a fit for another. Some children seem to have hollow legs and be constantly hungry. Others live on crackers and air.
When we focus on volume, we can inadvertently add both pressure and an unnatural approach to food into the equation. For example, having a child sit at the table until they have cleared their plate.
Doing this can also override innate cues that tell them when they have had enough food and should stop. Or, when they are truly hungry and need more.
If a child consistently doesn’t eat or consistently overeats it can also interfere with those internal cues so it’s important for us to have structure and parameters in place (see Trying food – the basics for an hours video which goes into this in detail: https://the-confident-eater.teachable.com/).
There are many ways we can put ourselves into the middle of the feeding relationship – and when we have a child that does struggle to eat well, it is even more likely!
However, gently removing ourselves does have great long-term advantages.
Doing this can be quite challenging though as we are often fighting against years of our own conditioning.
If you are wanting to make changes over the holidays and would like more support, please get in touch as they are some fabulous and budget-friendly ways in which we can help.
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/