Specific advice for parents of very fussy eaters
If we have a fussy eater, our first thought is often “how can I fix my child’s eating?”. Although that may be the end goal, the first thing to do is usually much simpler to put into place.
As parents we have enormous influence over our child’s long-term eating success, even if it seems like they have all the power, and the ball is totally in their court.
What we do is critical. We lead, we set the bar high, we show our child what to do.
We also create an atmosphere of support and progress.
Specific help for parents of fussy eaters
1. Empower your child. Picky eating is demoralizing and often stressful and frustrating. However, the way we approach food and feeding can have such an impact on our child.
Using words like fussy and picky are negative. And yes, I know I use them, but only in communicating messages to parents. I would never say it in front of a child and ban them as words for any of the families I work with.
Negative words – and not just fussy or picky either – may become a self-fulfilling prophecy and convey to a child that they are indeed stuck. Instead, we want to adopt a growth mentality where we look at where they are going and how they are going to get there.
The sub-conscious is very powerful, so what we tell it can impact on what we believe we can or can’t do. If we constantly tell ourselves we are bad at maths, the chances are we will be!
If you’d like some positive ways to speak about eating, think of the way we would frame things if we had a child who struggled to read. We would not be telling them they are bad at reading and will never be able to do it!
The language and approach we would use for other childhood challenges can be really useful in the eating sphere.
2. Think long-term. The more selective a child, usually the longer it will take to resolve fussy eating.
Eating is a complex undertaking. It involves all eight senses and is social, emotional, mental, and physical. There are so many areas in which things can go awry.
Fixing picky eating may be a long-term challenge. Knowing this is important as we can adjust our expectations. If we know that this is not something that will be done and dusted by next month, we can approach it appropriately.
However, even if this is going to take a long time:
i) It does not have to be a negative experience. In fact, it can be a labour of love and a lovely, gentle process for our child.
ii) How great will it be to know that even if it’s a few years away, you have helped your child become more competent and confident around food? Imagine what that looks like in practice. Restaurants, social occasions, one family meal!
I know many parents who were in the trenches for a good while but now are reaping the rewards and soooo pleased that they did start, continue and see progress. Even a few years is a blip in the swing of a life.
3. Appreciate progress. If resolving picky eating is going to be a long-term project, it’s important that we know we are not wasting our time and that things are working.
Unfortunately, we have all been taught to measure progress in terms of eating. Doing this has got to be the most demoralizing exercise ever
A super selective eater may take a long time before eating new foods is comfortable, however, they are usually showing many signs of progress before that.
If we don’t recognize progress, we are very likely to give up, even though what we’re doing is working.
I love how this had been a ‘game-changer’ for many of the families I have worked with. It turns “they will never eat anything new” into “wow, you should see what xxx just did”.
If our child is uncomfortable touching a food and over time becomes happy handling it, that would be enormous progress. If something is not okay in the hands, there is no way it is going into the mouth.
Similarly, if our child puts something in their mouth but takes it back out again, that could be a ‘wow’ moment. If we can get something into the mouth, it’s a very short step to complete the final eating action.
4. Patience and consistency. Things can take time to work and knowing that means we can afford to be patient.
Because it is a longer-term project, what we do on a daily basis is key. I know many parents who are doing great things at home but because they are not seeing eating, or not recognizing progress stop.
I frequently compare feeding and reading. If we think of how many times, we show our child a book and allow them to get immersed in stories before they start reading back words, it gives a good indication of what we need to do with the carrot or the chicken.
Take that reading philosophy and think of the consistency it requires to get to the independent reading stage. The carrots will be the same. It’s building comfort.
Our brain loves to know what’s happening so creating routines is comforting. Building structure into food and feeding is critical.
5. Serve new foods. I know, I know, they haven’t eaten anything new for months (years) so you know it’s a waste of time! But go back through steps 2-4. It is a long-term project, it can take time, we do have to be patient and consistent.
If we serve new foods, it shows we believe that it is worth it. If we don’t, what message does that send?
We also want to give our child the opportunity to both get to know a new food and be able to eat it, should they choose. If we are not serving them, they are definitely not eating them
Serving new foods also makes the plate look different. Just that alone is important for all sorts of psychological reasons.
Helping a child who has challenges around new foods eat more widely is not easy, but it also doesn’t have to be miserable. There are many ways to make things easier for you as the parent and fun for your child.
It’s also where it’s important for us to remain upbeat and positive. The more stressed and anxious we are, the more difficult it can be for our child. They can pick up on our moods really easily and that can in turn mean they become more anxious around food.
Our core goal is to make eating as calm and comfortable as possible.
If you would like help putting these strategies gently into place in your house, with your routines and your child’s specific challenges and food preferences please get in touch: https://calendly.com/judith-23/bookatimewithjudith?month=2022-03
Judith, MA Cantab, 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/