Avoiding common mistakes for parents of fussy eaters
Parenting a fussy eater is tough. It is frequently a LOT of work, a LOT of stress and a LOT of worrying. Oh, if only there was a pill to swallow that would make everything better!
Unfortunately, resolving picky eating is usually a process and one which takes time and effort. However, along the way there are some common mistakes that parents make which make progress more difficult, or even prevent it from happening.
Eating for many children can be exceptionally difficult and having a child who doesn’t eat well is often frightening. As there is little help and support, especially as children age, it’s not surprising that compromises creep in and habits can develop that make progress harder.
Supporting a child to eat enough and as widely as possible may mean parents are making up rules as they go along and finding compromises that preserve sanity. However, many of these strategies inadvertently make great eating less likely.
Let’s look at some ways we can impede progress without even realising it and explore better strategies for supporting our fussy eater.
Avoiding mistakes for fussy eaters
1. Staring not sharing. From when babies are first eating we are encouraged to do this! Every photo of a parent feeding a baby is of the child sitting in a highchair and an adult shovelling food into their mouth or placing food on their tray.
My vision is of baby in the highchair up at the table while as many of the family as possible share food with them. Eating alone is never as fun as an adult, never mind as a child.
Similarly, who wants to eat while someone stares at us? It’s far better to ‘break bread’ together and share food. If we do this as a parent it also role models great habits for our child and shows them how to eat well.
2. Believing they’ll grow out of it. Yes, some children do grow out of their fussy eating, but many don’t.
A simple way to think about it is to ask a few questions:
i) Can they try new foods? (if they can’t how can they grow out of fussy eating?)
ii) Are they dropping foods they previously ate? If they are going backwards it’s the opposite of going forwards!
iii) Do they have a strong negative reaction to food, eating, new foods? If so, this is going to make adding foods difficult.
Sitting back and waiting for a child to grow out of eating can also make progress more difficult later on. Almost every parent I speak to wishes they had acted on their gut instinct and asked for help sooner.
The longer we wait, the more negative patterns become entrenched. Also, if there are underlying challenges like sensory sensitivities, these can either get worse over time, or become more difficult to ameliorate.
3. Feeding on demand. I want to clarify this as many parents would feel that this doesn’t apply to them, when possibly it does
If we have a child who struggles to eat well it is logical to give them food when they are hungry. Unfortunately, this often turns into ‘feeding on demand’:
i) A child finds it difficult to eat meals but then is ravenous between.
ii) Or doesn’t eat well at school/kindy so comes home totally on empty.
iii) Or finds dinner a challenge so is starving before bed.
In this way, many fussy eaters get their eating schedules mixed up and parents feel as they have no choice but to feed their child when they ask.
Unfortunately, doing this perpetuates the problem. Plus it means that a child is eating less and less of the dinner-type foods.
A better approach is to stick to meal and snack schedules and only offer foods at those times. It can be a little tough transitioning at first, but long-term this is a key part of improving eating.
4. Eat or starve family meals. Pretty much every parent’s end goal is to have their child come to the table and happily eat whatever gets served. It’s a great goal and definitely something to work towards.
Unfortunately, it can take a long time to get anywhere near that. In the mean-time parents often take one of two approaches. The first is to serve whatever the rest of the family is eating and giving a child the choice to eat or not.
It’s a positive thing as a child is part of the family meal. They are also seeing the foods that parents would like them to eat and being given the opportunity to eat them.
However, if these foods are out of the comfort zone, this frequently results in a child not eating at all. Not finding anything they enjoy eating is not a positive. And not eating night after night does not make mealtimes a fun and relaxed place to be.
It can also mean that children get used to not eating and so lose the hunger cues that are really supportive of better eating.
5. Favourites for meals. The opposite to ‘eat or starve’ is to serve foods that a child can eat easily. Many parents get to this point. The frustration of endless fails and a hungry child before bed means that serving something you know will be eaten is easier for everyone.
The positive in doing this is that mealtimes are generally more pleasant. Food gets eaten and there is no wastage and no frustration.
The negative is that a child is not learning to eat new foods. They are also having their narrow preferences reinforced as the only foods accepted. Unfortunately, it can lead to them dropping foods too as eating the same thing on repeat gets very boring.
A better way is to mix and match between the two extremes. Make sure there is a food a child can eat but also have family foods offered. This means food gets eaten but there is also the opportunity to eat new foods.
Remember, this is a longer-term strategy and not one that is likely to yield magical overnight success.
Supporting a child to eat new foods takes time and consistency.
If a child is really uncomfortable around new foods or older, it is also likely that you will need additional strategies to make progress. However, a compromise where a child sees new foods but can also always eat is still advisable.
These are just some of the common mistakes that parents inadvertently make. I feel though that I have much more to say on the topic, so watch this space as there is going to be a part- 2
Judith, MA Cantab, Grad Dip Psychology, 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/