Fussy Eating and Food Battles
Feeding toddlers can be one of the hardest things you can do. One day they’ll eat anything, the next day NOTHING! My three year old twins are going through that at the moment, and to be honest, I’ve lost my inspiration to cook a variety of healthy meals for them as they keep ending up in the garbage. As I was cooking them dinner the other night (well let’s be honest, I wasn’t cooking really, I was making them pasta and tomato sauce) I knew I was stuck in a rut. I went live on my Facebook profile and asked for inspiration. What meals were people feeding their kids that were easy, healthy and yummy? I got such an overwhelming response and it inspired me to persist with offering variety. I dug out my favourite Thermomix cookbook “Cooking for your Baby and Toddler” by Louise Fulton Keats and found some old favourites that I used to cook for the girls when we were doing Baby Led Weaning. I stumbled across a section in the book where she addresses fussy eating. Reading it for the second time resonated a lot more because I was actually living it. Her tips for avoiding fussy eaters or getting fussy eaters back on track made so much sense. In a world where obesity and other health issues are on the rise, I knew I had to take action.
Here is a summary of what she had to say.
Fussy eating and food battles go hand in hand with 3 year olds. These days come and go, and it is a matter of getting through them as calmly as possible. But, having a child who is a seriously fussy eater can make your life miserable. And when the odd day turns into weeks and months of unhealthy eating, then you have a problem.
Fussy eating can result in serious nutritional deficiencies and can cause major stress for the whole family. Thankfully, there are several steps you can take to try to prevent your child from becoming a fussy eater, and to stop things from getting any worse if they do.
Firstly, how do you prevent fussy eating?
If your child is under two years of age, you have a golden opportunity to set the stage for healthy eating behaviours. Simple things like repeatedly exposing your baby to a large variety of different flavours, building her familiarity with different ingredients; and helping her to manage all sorts of different textures, will help avoid fussy eating down the track.
Of course there are no guarantees! Despite your best efforts, you may still end up with the world’s trickiest eater! However, there is still plenty you can do to stop your child’s eating from getting worse over time.
Here are some tactics that you probably grew up with that have been scientifically proven NOT to work:
- “You can’t leave the table until you finish what’s on your plate.”
- “No dessert unless you eat your vegetables”
- “If you don’t eat those Brussel sprouts, you’ll be getting them for breakfast.”
These methods are counterproductive and actually tend to make matters worse.
So, according to research, what are the best approaches for minimizing fussy eating?
- Offer a range of healthy foods, even if your child doesn’t like them-one of the key predictors of whether or not a child will eat a certain food is familiarity. If they have only seen or tasted a certain food a few times, you can hardly expect them to love it. If they make a fuss about them being on the same plate, put them on a separate plate. Just don’t stop serving them.
- Eat a range of healthy foods yourself. This is why it’s so important to eat as a family. Your child’s sponge like brain is soaking up your every move. The more your child sees you eating up your vegetables, the more likely they’ll do the same.
- Don’t stress about quantities. There are all sorts of reasons why your child may have a smaller or larger appetite on any given day. There is good evidence that being relaxed about how much your child eats is more likely to result in healthy eating behaviours.
- Don’t say ‘finish everything on your plate’. There is research that suggest babies and toddlers have a very good inherent ability to regulate their own appetites. Encouraging your child to be guided by her own hungry and full signs sets her up for a healthy relationship with her own body and its needs.
- Serve your child’s meal when she’s hungry. Think about when you’re giving them snacks and how much. Yes, toddlers need snacks to get them through the day but a big bowl of crackers and a smoothie at 4.30pm will probably mean they won’t want much at dinner. It’s definitely true for me when I haven’t given the girls snacks in the afternoon, they enjoy their dinner a lot more.
- Don’t hide all of your child’s vegetables. As mentioned earlier, familiarity is essential. In order to become familiar with food, your child needs to know they’re eating it. Of course hiding vegetables is an excellent way to improve the diet of a fussy eater, but include a side of the whole vegetable too so they learn what it looks like and how they taste in their whole form.
- Don’t pressure your child to eat. This is a really hard one! It means not saying to your child, “You can’t watch TV unless you eat three more mouthfuls”. It means not saying “It would make Mummy/Daddy really happy if you ate up your steak.” And definitely don’t say “You can’t leave the table until you finish your dinner.” Research tells us that these strategies do not work. In the long term, your child will probably be more likely to manipulate you at mealtimes. If your toddler gets the sense that you care about it so much, she’s going to realize it’s an easy way to get lots of attention.
- Encourage your child to have a try. This does not mean pressuring your child to eat the whole bowl. It means getting them to have a taste. And if they don’t want to have a taste? Don’t flip out. Just stay calm and try serving it again another day.
- Don’t reward food with food. “If you eat your peas, you can have some yummy chocolate cake!” Sounds like a good deal and will probably work. But we now know that this strategy is likely to make your child like peas even less, and chocolate cake even more. And it’s not hard to see why. From your child’s perspective, peas are suddenly a chore, a task, a dreaded thing you have to get through, and cake is a special treat! If you want your child to eat peas, serve them to her regularly, make mealtimes a positive experience and eat peas yourself. Just don’t offer her any cake for her efforts.
- Keep meal times fun. If your child’s experience of mealtimes is positive and conflict-free, according to the research in this field, she’s going to be more likely to form a liking for the foods you serve her.
- Be strict on your shopping, not on your child. Instead of restricting your child on the potato chips she sees you eating, the best approach is to be strict on your shopping list and don’t buy the chips in the first place! Keep the unhealthy foods to a minimum – but when those foods are in your house (and your toddler knows about them), don’t overly restrict her access to them. The more restrictions you put on your child’s consumption of a particular food, the more likely she is to want that food.
- Don’t call your child a fussy eater. Pigeon-holing a child in this way can make her think that she can’t or shouldn’t change her ways. Or, worse still, she might actually like the attention that does with the label and become more entrenched in her behavior.
How Do You Get a Fussy Easter to ‘Have a try’?
- Play a game with the whole food, eg asking them to help you peel the fruit and get the pips out. It will help them become more familiar with the strange food and maybe finally have a taste.
- Start a ‘copy cat’ game at the dinner table. Ask everyone at the table to eat one or two things you know your toddler likes. Everyone eats in unison and there’s a great cheer. Then move on to the food your toddler won’t try. Hopefully, your toddler will follow suit!
- Sing a song or tell a story about the food in question to help build familiarity.
- Put a small piece of the food next to a selection of familiar, liked foods.
- Involve your toddler in the gardening or cooking process – there is research that suggests that children are more inclined to try foods that they’ve grown or cooked themselves.
- Bring your child’s favourite ‘teddy’ (or whatever toy) to the table so that they can enjoy some meals! You could even give your child a spare spoon/fork so they can feed Teddy themselves. If your child sees their trustworthy Teddy ‘enjoying’ something they’re a bit unsure about, they might be much more willing to give it a go!
Do you have any more suggestions? Please comment below! Xx