A wonderfully healthy diet sounds great in theory, but if you have a picky eater on your hands then this is where you have your work cut out. In too many household’s food choices can become a sticking point and meal times can be incredibly stressful.
When you have a child, who is a fussy feeder they will almost always suffer more from infections, have more meltdowns, struggle to sleep through the night and have lower self-confidence. If this goes on for a long time, poor eating habits can have a domino effect on a child’s learning, behaviour and development. We believe every child has the right to great health. Turning a poor eater into a fantastic eater may seem a massive challenge but our my mind, it is the cornerstone to keeping them healthy.
You can break the cycle of fussy feeding and sometimes simple small changes can make the greatest impact. Following on from Part One of ‘Top Tips for Dealing with Fussy Eating’, I provide you more ideas for broadening your children’s palate and also ways to help them to develop a positive relationship with food.
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1. Distinct snacks over grazing
It can be a challenge to find a balance between sustaining children’s energy levels and ensuring they are hungry at mealtimes. Snacking and grazing regularly through the day may result in children being less hungry at mealtimes. Equally, the ability to snack regularly means children can refuse food at mealtimes knowing they can snack on something more preferable a little later. Ensuring 3 meals a day with distinct snack times in between and leaving a couple of hours between meals and snacks can be really beneficial.
Aim for nutritious snacks that include fat, protein and carbohydrate to fill kids up, keep blood sugar levels stable and sustain energy levels (e.g. fruit with natural yoghurt, oatcakes with avocado, celery sticks filled with cream cheese, crispbreads with peanut butter, hummus and carrot sticks).
Hint: Hungry children prior to lunch or dinner present a great opportunity to get in extra vegetables, put some raw veg sticks on the table whilst you’re finishing preparing dinner or give them half a cup of soup as a starter.
2. Rethink your approach to sweet
We are all aware that cakes, biscuits, crisps and sweets aren’t good for us; they can affect mood, behaviour, suppress immunity, decay teeth and are highly addictive! Whilst all foods can be part of a balanced diet, it is important to think about the frequency with which they are offered to children and also be aware of where hidden sugar creeps in (check your cereals, pasta sauces, yoghurts – look for low sugar or unsweetened varieties as much as possible). A home environment low in sugary and unhealthy snack foods and where puddings are not offered on a daily basis can help to keep consumption down and reduce the likelihood of craving these foods. Equally, it can be useful not to make too much fuss about restricting these foods, which makes them more desirable, often leading to over-eating when they are available.
Where possible offer attractive and nutritious treats, make your own flapjacks and brownies using more natural sweeteners such as maple syrup, honey, banana, apple, pear, vanilla bean and cinnamon, adding ground nuts and seeds for added goodness.
One approach that you should seek to avoid when dealing with a fussy eater is offering sweet foods as a reward for eating savoury. In this scenario you create a double-edged sword as both the dislike for the savoury food and the desire for the reward food increase. Think about non-food rewards instead – a sticker, a small toy, a comic, a trip to the park. Tiny Tastes is a fab, attractive sticker reward system to get little fussy eaters trying their vegetables.
3. Get them involved
Involving children in food-related activities away from the dinner table is a valuable way to increase positive exposure, tapping into their curiosity and helping them to create a positive relationship with food.
A few ideas include:
- Helping you with meal planning, including looking through a recipe book to choose a new recipe to try.
- Take them shopping (preferably to the greengrocers and butchers rather than the supermarket where there are so many well-marketed unhealthy snack foods!). Get them to pick up, feel, smell, choose the foods with you.
- Grow food together, this can be as simple as a few herbs in the kitchen that you use on a regular basis, something they can tend, watch grow and use.
- Involve them in food preparation – washing, chopping, stirring. The smell of food stimulates the release of saliva and enzymes ready for digestion so even just being around whilst food is cooking starts to prepare your child’s body to eat.
- Play with food! Let them play with food in a messy play environment allowing them to explore textures, tastes, smells, dynamics without needing to eat, paint with potatoes and make art with dried beans, draw or colour in pictures of foods to stick on the wall, allow them to use real fruit and vegetables in role play.
- Give older children jobs to do such as laying the table and preparing drinks before dinner or helping to clear plates and wash dishes after dinner.
4. Your words
The words that you use when you talk to your children about food are equally as important as the food itself. Be aware of your own food hang-ups so that you can reduce the possibility of passing them down. If there are foods you don’t like, don’t talk negatively about them even if you don’t eat them. It’s OK to for us all to have likes and dislikes as long as our diet is healthy and varied.
Statements such as ‘you won’t grow big and strong if you don’t eat your spinach’ or ‘you can go outside once you finish your meal’ can easily promote power struggles and situations where what a child eats becomes more about exerting their self-control than the food itself. Similarly, try not to label a fussy eater. It gives them a perfect excuse to play into that role!
Focus your language on exploration to engage them in a positive process of trying new things ‘you tried the cauliflower, how was it? How did it feel? How did it taste?’. And, explain simple nutritional principles to allow children to make informed choices. For example, ‘eating different coloured vegetables makes your body better at fighting off illness’, ‘eating greens helps you build strong bones’ and ‘fish helps your brain to feel happier’.
5. Be a role model
Research shows that children whose mothers ate with them and ate the same food as them refused fewer foods. Be a role model, eat with your child, share the same meals as a family, let them see you eating and enjoying your food, eating a variety, eating your greens, trying new things and not snacking on chocolate or crisps day to day. Just as valuable is eating with other children and adults, so they see other children eating well. Let a healthy relationship with food develop by osmosis.
As we mentioned in Part One, it can take time to unpick and change fussy eating habits. Don’t despair. Take it one step at a time. Offer real delicious healthy wholefoods repeatedly, without pressure, and focus on empowering your child to listen to their bodies, make their own choices and develop their own tastes, likes and dislikes because the choices you are giving them are healthy choices.
- Listen to your child
- Promote a relaxed mealtime environment
- Keep exposing children to new, different and disliked foods
- Include a wide variety of foods
- Give children choice
- Distinct snacks over grazing
- Rethink your approach to sweet
- Get them involved
- Think about your words when talking about food
- Be a role model