Top 10 Tips for Dealing With a Fussy Eater

With the holidays as a distant memory and the transition back into the reality of the everyday routine, we are reminded of the myriad of things we find more than a little challenging as parents. Not to mention that with all the beautiful holiday memories, some less wonderful habits may have been picked up by your little angel (let’s just say that my son successfully survived on chips, biscuits and toasted sandwiches for two weeks #motheroftheyear).

Eating habits are no exception here: after a number of days of an interrupted routine and being able to eat all the things that make the lives of us parents easier, it is time to bring on the food that may no longer seem to taste as good.

Thankfully, this resistance may last only a few days while you do everything in your power to find your way back to some kind of normal routine. Now that you have the good news, you need to be prepared for potentially some other hurdles around mealtimes as you strive to get your child into the swing of eating a balanced and nutritious diet (refer back to my last post, which unpacked what this fussy eating business is actually all about).

Here are some tips that will hopefully make your dealings with fussy eating slightly easier in your year ahead, to keep in mind when your little munchkin seems to have their boxing gloves on at mealtimes:

  1. Timing is everything. You need to learn to read your child. Whether or not it is time for a meal according your daily routine, if your child isn’t in the right frame of mind you may as well be taking the nutritious meal you just prepared and throwing it down the toilet. An overtired child and an overly hungry child are both a recipe for disaster. If your child is tired rather push their mealtime out a little later and if your child is starving then give them something small to snack on and keep them busy while you are getting their meal together (I generally opt for something not too filling like a soft cheese wedge, a fresh piece of fruit or some spaghetti noodles to keep my son entertained for a few minutes).
  2. Do not over-react. If you have landed up with some mac and cheese all over face or poured onto the floor, do not burst into laughter or gasp in horror at the mess on your new carpet. As soon as your child realises that they are going to make you laugh (or be dramatic in any way) when they behave badly, they will associate that bad behaviour with a seemingly positive reaction from you. So resist the urge to burst into laughter, even if you really want to!
  3. There’s no one size fits all. Don’t compare your child to your friend’s kid who eats broccoli by the kilo, or the child who eats ‘absolutely anything’ from your playgroup. Every child is different, with their own likes and dislikes. Your child is a little individual, so throw out the comparisons and the benchmarks and set your own.
  4. Give them freedom of choice. That’s not to say making a different dish every time they turn their nose up at a meal, but rather asking them to choose some elements around their meal time to get them involved i.e.: chicken or beef; a red bib or a blue bib; their yellow feeding spoon or the purple one; banana or pear for dessert etc.
  5. Make mealtimes fun! Get your child involved in the process of picking out ingredients, to preparing and then serving up the food. If they are still too young to get involved, talk them through everything you are doing to create the most delicious meal possible for them. Adding different toppings to meals (like pizzas, yoghurt, porridge or rice cakes) can also be a fun activity.
  6. Make storytelling a part of your mealtime conversation. By telling your little one animated and excited  stories about where a particular food comes from or the types of animals that eat that food, you are going to get them interested in something that previously received the cold shoulder.
  7. Make the benefits known. Explain to them that they need a variety of foods to help them grow and get strong. Don’t hold back on telling them all about specific health benefits that different foods are able to give to them i.e.: yummy orange full of vitamins/delicious yoghurt for strong bones and teeth.
  8. Don’t force the issue. If the meal you have lovingly prepared has landed up in smithereens on the floor or your child just seems to be impossible to please, never feel as though you need to force them into eating a meal. Mealtime should never become a battle field. You want your child to associate a happy and relaxed occasion with all mealtimes.
  9. Don’t underestimate the power of praise. If your child branched out and ate some of the broccoli medley you put on her plate or ate an entire bowl of spaghetti bolognese with gusto, tell her how clever she is. You want your child to have positive associations with eating, so that they remember these positive feelings the next time they sit down to a meal.
  10. Don’t throw in the towel so easily. Experts have recommended that a child should be exposed to a new food at least ten times before it is ‘liked’ by them. If your little one isn’t keen the first time you give him something, don’t let that stop you from trying again. Children need to be exposed to as many foods as possible and the younger the are when you do it, the better! Us parents are quick to say that our children ‘aren’t into something’ after one or two attempts that didn’t go the way we had imagined. We need to be tancious and mindful simulatenously by offering a specific type of food at just the right time – you will probably be surprised.

*The above information should never replace the advice of your GP, paed or nurse.

Legend of The Fussy Eater

It is something that mommies talk about and the thing that you think your little munchkin will never become. You feel momentarily ‘lucky’ that your child seems to be lapping up every morsel of food placed in front of him, delighting in their equally adventurous and ravenous mealtime behaviour. I was this mom. I thought I had an ‘adventurous eater’… until my son turned one.

Upon hitting the twelve month mark my son discovered a newfound sense of independence and with that came a more discerning little palate: one that wouldn’t hold back on telling me what he did and didn’t like. I realised this ‘fussy eating’ business could, in fact, be a real thing and not something made-up by paranoid mamas all over the world.

Now, us moms love to stick labels onto things. Fussy eating is one of those labels and for the most part may mean a host of different things for different kids – a child starting out on solids may simply be a little overwhelmed when faced with new tastes and textures, another child may just have been through a growth spurt and is now showing less of an interest in eating than she previously did, a child older than one may just be too preoccupied with walking and exploring to be consumed with eating every crumb on her plate – very different behaviour, all with the same ‘fussy eating’ label. According to experts, we need to remember that children will go through different phases throughout their lives, all of which are likely to, in some way, impact their appetite and preferences.

According to a study published by the journal Appetite in 2016, children enter their fussiest phase of eating from the age of two, with their pickiness declining by the age of six. Although there has been speculation that fussy eating may be a genetic predisposition, what is more widely accepted is that fussy eating is actually down to the personality of your child: parents can raise two children in exactly the same environment, feeding them the same meals, and one child may turn into a much fussier eater than the other.

So what exactly defines a ‘fussy eater’ and how do you deal with one? According to Bridget Swinney, author of Baby Bites, there are a number of notorious behaviours around fussy eating:

Your child is a ‘food purist’

This is when your child reacts badly to one food touching another. This is an easy one to fix: simply use a plate or bowl with separations/divides. This may even extend to not tolerating different foods that have been cooked together, in which case you may be better of blending foods together so that the culprit foods can’t be identified. Both of these, however, are short-term fixes because your little one will need to get used to eating mixed foods at some point.

 Your child only wants one food, days on end

We hear about this type of behaviour all the time: “My child will only eat chicken nuggets and chips” or “My child will only eat cereal” or something else along those lines. It is a common behaviour as your child becomes a toddler and the good news is that your child most likely won’t grow into a 40-year-old adult that refuses to eat anything other than chicken nuggets shaped like dinosours. You can strategically expose them to other foods by placing nutritious options into whatever they are eating: if they will only eat chips with their chicken nuggets then try oven-baked sweet potato chips dipped in hummus instead of their regular fried chips or add blueberries and a teaspoon of yoghurt into their oats. Whatever you do, you need to persevere in getting them to try other foods if you want them to get the most optimal nutrition and sustenance from their diets.

Your child is ‘allergic’ to green

This is something else that is likely to be short-lived and it isn’t something to panic about. It isn’t uncommon for kids (or my husband!) to insist that they will only eat meat and potatoes without a green object in sight. There are a number other veggies that aren’t green and are high in nutritional value: red and orange fruits and veggies are a fantastic source of beta-carotene and they are crammed with antioxidants. Having said that, don’t give up on the greens! Most green vegetables are packed with iron, calcium and antioxidants and little developing systems need them to thrive. Get smart (and a little sneaky) by adding in the greens (or any veggies for that matter) wherever you can: blend spinach in with a stew, sneak peas into cottage pie or add finely diced broccoli to Bolognese sauce. Then, lean back and smile when they tuck into their homemade meal packed with extra goodness!

Your child likes all foods smooth

Sensory children may have a texture aversion because everything they experience is magnified or you may simply have a kid that just doesn’t like lumpy food. Either way, do not spend the rest of your days pureeing everything into a silky smooth consistency. Keep adding a variety of textures wherever you can: rice cakes dipped into smooth cottage cheese, grated cheese and croutons sprinkled over soup or chopped berries and seeds sprinkled into yoghurt. It is important for children to be exposed to different textures and by giving them smooth meals day-in and day-out, means stunting their development.

Your child only wants food that is one colour

Giving into this will only mean making life difficult for yourself and will limit your child’s exposure to a number of nutritionally beneficial foods. Get them excited about trying foods that are the same colours of things that they love (red strawberries to match their new red truck or green apples to match their favourite green shoes) and get them involved in selecting and preparing foods that are all the colours of the rainbow.

Your child rejects strong smelling food

If your little one sticks her nose up at the anchovy toast fingers you dished up for breakfast or turns away from the grilled fish dish you lovingly prepared for supper, you need to show them that sometimes ‘bad’ smelling food can actually be very delicious. Show them that mommy and daddy don’t mind eating different ‘smelly’ foods and that they don’t mind smelling them either.

Your child hates herbs and spices

Start with the milder herbs and spices that aren’t over-powering and only cook with a little at a time. If your child has been exposed to a number of herbs and spices over time and still refuses to eat them, then go back to basics by introducing one at a time: they may find too many flavours and tastes difficult to process and you need to ‘hold their hand’ as you expose them to a variety of these tastes once more.

My two cents:

Fussy eating evolves into exactly what you allow it to become.

The trick is not to throw in the towel upon the first sign of difficult behaviour. If your child won’t eat the meal you have given to him, don’t jump immediately to make him something else. You need to deal with fussy eating in the right way if you want to get your child out of bad habits early on. Sometimes it is easier for parents to give-in because we just don’t feel like the fight, but we aren’t doing our little people (and most certainly not ourselves) any favours.

The sooner they realise that mom or dad will give-in at the first sign of a protest, the easier it will be to get exactly what they want. The longer you cater to your child’s every whim, the more difficult they will become. It is that simple.

By the same token, we need to also remember that our kids are little humans, with their own likes and dislikes. Just as adults have preferences and things that we detest, so do they. As parents, we need to be mindful of our own child’s personality and learn the difference between an actual food aversion and when they are simply exercising some self-control. By doing so, you will pave the way for mindful parenting and happy (and hopefully fuss-free!) mealtimes in your home.

*The above advice should never replace the advice of your paediatrician or nurse.

* If you are worried about your child not getting adequate nutrition, or have seen any developmental concerns, consult your doctor/paediatrician immediately.