Do you have a fussy eater? Or perhaps more than one? Does your family meal time frequently turn into a battleground?
You are not alone! It is normal for kids (of all ages!) to go through phases of fluctuating eating habits depending upon growth spurts/puberty, activity levels, feelings (stress, hunger, tiredness) and even the weather.
However, about 25 percent of healthy kids are picky eaters (80 percent if your child has ASD), who continually refuse to eat certain food groups or even multiple food groups. They may have always been picky or have become increasingly so, for no apparent reason, with the list of foods refused constantly growing.
Tips for managing picky eaters
Regardless of the extremity and duration of your child’s fussiness, you still have to navigate through that dinner time battle every single day. Here are a few tips which may help minimise the dinner time struggles:
1. Repeated exposure
Don’t give up! Research shows that children may need to be exposed to a new food at least 15 times before eating it. It takes a while to get used to new smells, looks and tastes. Try offering the same food in a variety of ways—for example, a carrot could be raw or cooked, grated, sliced or diced, eaten on its own or as an ingredient within another food (think spaghetti bolognaise, frittata, savoury muffin or even carrot cake, occasionally!).
2. Set routine
Create a meal/snack routine that works for your family. Establish a set time to eat (even if it has to be adaptable for different days of the week) and stick to it, to avoid your child filling up on snacks during the hour before dinner time. Encourage eating to be at the table/in the kitchen and avoid mindlessly eating watching TV.
3. Encourage calmness
To facilitate a healthy appetite and an effective digestive system, we need to be calm. Before dinnertime, encourage your child to get some outdoor play, like kicking a ball in the garden or jumping on the trampoline, whilst you prepare the food. Their mood will be boosted. Don’t forget your own feelings too. Lock yourself in the bathroom and take 10 minutes to breathe and be calm before calling the family to the table. During dinner, turn off the TV/phone/iPad, play some calming background music and refrain from pressuring or commenting upon your child’s eating choices.
4. Build trust
It’s normal to be fearful of new experiences and foods; think about the experience you might have (or have had) when exposed to street food markets overseas. Although I encourage adding nutritious value to your meals (for example, loading a bolognaise sauce with plenty of veg), I rarely recommend that you ’hide’ vegetables or ‘disguise’ foods within other foods. Be open with your child about the ingredients or the foods you provide.
5. Allow ownership
Kids are more likely to do/eat something if they have a choice over it. Allow your child to choose some of the week’s meals. Some kids like to serve themselves, so setting up the table like a buffet bar or with serving dishes in the middle of the table can help. Allow your child to choose how much they actually serve/eat of the food that is available, but say no to short-order cooking or alternative food options from the pantry.
6. Regular involvement
Encourage your child to help out in the kitchen preparing meals, snacks, lunchboxes. This increases exposure in a less confrontational way. Your child may even taste a food during the preparation and be more willing to try something they have ‘cooked themselves’ at the dinner table. Grow some salad greens or veggies or visit a farmer’s market with bright and colourful produce offering samples to taste.
Children may be fussy eaters for a variety of reasons, including testing the boundaries, modelling behaviours, sensory sensitivities and nutrient deficiencies. If you’re worried about your child’s fussy eating habits, then please contact me. I provide nutrition consultations in Unanderra.