I often get asked “ Do you have any recipes I can cook for my fussy eater?” I love to try out new recipes and experiment a bit at dinner time so I love sharing some great recipes with you all. I also know you guys love my recipes as well.
The thing is, I often wonder if that is what you really need from me…..
Recipes are great but if you have a fussy eater, new recipes may not always be the way you can get your child to eat.
It's Not About the Food
Have you ever cooked a dinner that you know your kid’s are going to love, only to feel defeated at the end of a meal when your kids refuse the meal?
I keep saying to myself, the problem is not what you are cooking, (well maybe it is!!!), so new recipes are not always the answer. I think the problem is getting your fussy eater to want to try new foods that you cook for them.
Scared of New Foods
Kids who are fussy with their eating, are likely scared to try new foods, so just putting new foods on the plate is not going to get your child to eat the food. In fact new meals may actually scare them more. What I wanted to do is to give you information about the steps you need to take to get your child happy to try a new food.
I want you to be able to cook a meal one day that you know your family is going to want to eat. I want you to have calm & happy mealtimes.
Fussy Eating is Common
I want to firstly say that you are not alone. Up to 50% of toddlers are likely to be fussy. In fact fussy eating gets worse at around the age of 3. How many of you had kids who really liked their food when you started them on solids, but by the age of 12-18 months went on a hunger strike?
Fussy eating is common and the good news is that many kids will grow out of their fussy eating by around the age of 5. Unfortunately there are lots of kids that just won’t grow out of their fussy eating and these are the children that will need lots of help and support to get them to stop being scared of food and to start wanting to try the new meals that you cook for them.
Why You Just Can't Make a Fussy Eater Eat?
The problem is that many parents try so hard to get their fussy eater to try eat new foods, that this can backfire and make meals worse. Have you ever had a child love to eat a certain food and then one day refuse to eat it. This happens all the time. We know that the more a child is forced to eat a food, the less likely they are to eat that food.
Yes...I know that is not fair!
Hey that is children. How many times have you wanted your child to do something and they refused to do it. Well eating is no exception. In fact we know from lots and lots of research in this area that that the more we pressure a child the worse their eating is likely to become. This means that no matter how much making new foods, or how much bribing or cajoling you are doing, in the long run this is not going to help your fussy eater.
Will They Grow Out of Being A Fussy Eater?
As I said earlier, many kids will grow out of their fussy eating but many won’t and this comes down to a couple of reasons.If your child has always been a fussy eater, since birth or since introducing solids, then there may be a number of reasons they are fussy. These kids won't grow out of their fussy ways without lots of help. I have gone into this in much more detail in a previous post on “Your Child May Not Grow Out of the Fussy Eating” so check it out if you think that is your child.
The kids who ate well and then became fussy around 12-18 months can grow out of their fussy ways BUT only if parents don’t make their fussy eating ways worse by doing the forcing and pushing their child to eat that I mentioned earlier.
You job is not to get your child to eat, your job is to not make your child’s fussy eating worse.
Ok, I know I am sounding a little tough here, but this is the truth. You will never be able to force your child to eat a new food or just expect them to start eating without some help.
Don't worry, I have you covered...
How do I Help my Fussy Eater?
Eating is more complicated then we think. If you like food, then you think eating is a matter of seeing a food and then eating it. Eating is actually an activity that needs your kid’s to use all 5 senses. Yes taste is the obvious one, but they also need to use touch-how does the food feel when I lick it up; smell-how does it smell on the plate; sound-what does it sound like when I am eating; site-how does this food look on the plate?
As eating is so complicated, especially for young kids, it is very easy for them to start being afraid of eating if one of their senses are playing up. This means that your child is not going to just start eating food by continually putting the food in front of them. In fact this could make them more and more scared of eating and make their fussy eating worse.
To help your fussy eating to want to start wanting to try food, there are so many more steps needed then just getting your child to sit at the table and to serve them good food. This is why just feeding your child healthy foods without looking at mealtime structure and language and how you introduce new foods will not get them to eat the nutritious meal.
It's Not Just About Your Child
The other factor that may be stopping your child from eating is the parents themselves. How parents feel about food, what they eat in front of their child, what language they use around food, how the food is served all need to be looked at when thinking about helping a fussy eating child.
This is because food is not just about keeping us alive. Food is about connecting with family and loved ones and when we have fussy eaters, the joy of mealtime can be taken away. This can affect both parents and child’s eating habits. The more stress a mealtime, the more likely your child is not going to eat their meal as stress reduces our appetite. Hence why helping fussy eaters to learn to eat food is not just about the child but about the family as a whole.
10 Proven Steps to Help Your Fussy Eater
Over the years of working with fussy eating kids and from my experience with 2 young kids, including a fussy 3 year old, I have come to realise that there are 10 steps that are needed to help a child to learn to like eating food. I am going to share these with you today.
1. Understand Why Your Child is a Fussy Eater
As I discussed earlier, fussy eating is complicated. Many health professionals will tell you that your child will just grow out of it. This is not necessarily true. By understanding why your child is fussy, this will help you to be very specific about the type of things you need to do to help your child. If any of these sound familiar then your child will need some help to improve their fussy eating.
Behavioural- This is more likely if your child didn’t start becoming fussy until 12-18 months of age
Organic-Due to a medical condition such as tongue-tie, reflux, constipation or other medical condition when young which can cause a food aversion (scared of food).
Sensitive gag reflex-Issues from birth and vomited when changing texture of food
Sensory Processing Disorder-Issues with textures, smells or flavours and not just with food
Delayed Oral-Motor Skills-Didn’t progress past puree diet very well so now does not have the skills to chew
Supertaster-Dislike of foods with a strong flavour or reacts to very bitter foods
2. Understanding Your Own Motivation
Helping your child to learnt to like new foods takes a lot of time. It can also mean that there will be times your child does not eat well. This is part of the process but for many parents, they cannot cope if their child does not eat enough. Parents need to understand their own motivation for getting their child to eat so they can address this when they have trouble letting go at mealtimes.
Do you use food as a way to express love? Do you use food as a way to comfort your child? Are you afraid if your child losing weight as they were sick as a baby? Do you stress if your child’s diet is not perfectly nutritious? Have a think about why you stress when your child refuses a meal.
3. Reducing Stress Levels
When your child is refusing to come to the dinner table, is throwing food or refusing to eat their meal, this can cause stress for everyone. Much of this behaviour is your child being fearful of mealtimes as they may be scared they will be forced to eat something they don’t want to. Unfortunately this fear reaction from your child will actually reduce their appetite and make them less likely to try new foods. Mealtimes need to be as stress free as possible. This means avoiding using distractions at mealtimes, being careful not to force your child to eat anything and avoiding raising your voice when your child mucks around.
4. Mealtime Routines
For some families, even getting your child to come to the table and sit for more than 2 minutes can be difficult. Without a child sitting happily at the table, they are never going to ever try new foods. Kids thrive on routines and mealtimes are no exception. Aim to serve meals at the same place, same time and with the same bowls and cutlery etc will help your child to come to the table. Always give a warning before the meal so they know that mealtime is coming and if they are old enough let them help with meal preparation or even setting the table.
5. Family Meals
Children learn to eat by watching others. How many times have you heard you child will eat something at daycare but not with you.
Yes, this can be very frustrating…..
We know from lots of studies that kid’s are more likely to eat a food if they have seen a parent or carer eating that food. This is the reason I love family meals so much. The more you eat a food in front of your child, the more likely they will be to try that food. Now family meals, don’t have to be this big elaborate 3 course dinner. A family meal is a simple as your kids and at least one parent sitting down together to eat food. This can be done at snack time, breakfast, lunch and of course dinner.
6. Steps to Eating
Once you and the family have sat down happily at the table, how do you get your child to want to actually try a new food? As I said earlier in the post, eating involves all of your senses to eat. If your child has issues with one of those senses, for example they are very sensitive to smells or textures, eating is going to be difficult. This means the act of getting your child to take a bite of food can take a long time. When we talk about eating it is good to realise it can take 32 steps before your child will want to eat a food.
Your child needs to be comfortable touching food, smelling it, playing with it and being near the food, before they will even consider taking a bite to try the food. Therefore it is always a good idea to serve a new food with foods your child likes and let them play with the new food. Yes, this means letting your child touch the food...and yes things may get messy!! When you serve a new food, your aim is not to get your child to eat it, but to get them familiar with it. Remember this will take time.
As it takes 32 steps to eat, the goal of mealtimes is not to get your child to eat a new food, the goal is for your child to become familiar with new foods. This means the language you use at mealtimes can affect how your child feels about a food. Asking them to take a bite of the food is not the goal of the meal. Talking about the food, what colour it is, the texture and what it does for your child’s body is going to be a much better way to talk about the food.
Making changes in your child’s behaviour takes a lot of time...and a lot of patience. This means that when you are using a new way to structure meals, you won’t see changes overnight. This can be very frustrating for parents. When I work with parents, we often see a kid’s eating go backwards before it improves. I always say that changing fussy eating behaviour is more about the long game and not the short game. Your role is to teach your child long-term good behaviours, so definitely remember this when your child’s eating changes.
When feeding fussy children it is really easy to keep serving the same foods over and over again that you know they are going to eat. I get it, after a crazy day at work or looking after your kids, the last thing you want is to have a battle at mealtimes. So what tends to happen is that parents serve the meals that they know their kids will eat.
Unfortunately over time, your child is likely to start getting sick of that food and start to refuse it. I am sure the amount of food your child will eat is getting smaller over time. This refusal of foods we eat too much is normal and happens in both adults and kids. I used to love eating muesli, strawberries and yoghurt for breakfast...I loved it so much and ate it so much, I ended up hating the sight of it.
Unfortunately fussy eating kids already have a small amount of food they will eat, so refusal of previously liked foods, makes their range of food even smaller. The solution to this is to serve variety. Avoid serving the same food over and over again, even if you know they love eating it. Try and space out a meal on don’t serve it on 2 consecutive days. For really fussy eaters try and vary the time of day they get a certain food.
Behaviour change is always hard and this is even more so in children. Behaviour change in fussy eaters is no exception. It is possible to improve your child’s eating but not without support and the whole family on board. The families that I have worked with who have made some amazing changes to their kid’s eating habits have had very supportive partners who are happy to help you to stay consistent.
Without all carers in board…….and yes this does include grandparents, changing your child’s fussy eating habits is going to be so much harder. One of the most important reasons that my kid’s are good eaters is the fact that my hubby 100% agrees with what we do at mealtimes. When my youngest goes on a hunger strike, it would be hard to make changes if hubby was giving him snacks after dinner.
Having a support system is also vital when your child’s eating goes backwards. This is normal when making changes and without support of family, or friends, the likelihood of you continuing with the changes for long enough definitely will decrease. Have a think about whether your attempts at helping your child to be a less fussy eater have been sabotaged by outside people.
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Dr Jennifer Cohen
"Providing Bite-Sized Pieces of Nutrition Information to Busy Families"
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