Fussy eating is a challenge for most parents. One minute your child is an amazing food machine who consumes all food on offer. Then suddenly out of nowhere food is getting chucked onto the floor and tantrums become commonplace, and mealtime becomes stressful for the household.
So you're asking what can I do right now that will change the course of eating in your household forever?
Here are my five must-dos for fussy eating.
1) Get real. Get honest
Are you really motivated to change your children’s eating habits?
Here are some stats which might open your eyes –
- 40% of children in New Zealand are overweight or obese (60% if you are of Pacific Island decent)
- 50% of children have inadequate fruit and vegetable intake - a massive source of our vitamins and minerals which support children’s immune systems, brain, and body development.
- 90% of parents say fussy eating is a cause of stress in the family at mealtimes.
Often we see these sorts of statistics but do not connect them with ours or our children’s health. Parents say they struggle to make changes to family mealtimes, however the commitment and motivation has to be there to make these changes.
Ask yourself if your child’s eating is a priority in your life right now. Do you have the time and strength to make changes?
If you are ready then keep reading!
2) Hand Back the Right Kind of Control
Little kids are smart and switched on. It only takes one or two times of you rewarding or bribing them with a treat food before they figure out how they can make you give them that food 24/7.
They are now in control of mealtimes.
Instead, let them have control over positive aspects of the meal. Here are some ways to do this (depending on a child’s age);
Let them choose between two different food options which can be used in a meal
“Do you want beans or peas?”
Try not to just say “would you like peas for dinner?” because they will say “no”.
Only give them either/or options and if they cannot make it themselves, you make it for them.
They will learn to make the decision next time.
Give them routine they can be part of
Getting their own bib or plate, helping to set the table, walking or crawling to their chair, serving up food. For very young infants just starting out on solids – give them a spoon.
You will still need to feed them, but they can have a go too. Before the age of one, this should have progressed to you ‘preloading’ a spoon and giving them a selection of finger foods too. After 1 year of age they should be fully feeding themselves.
Giving children autonomy of how much goes into their mouth actually helps them eat more.
3) Take back control of what is being served
You are not a restaurant. There is no menu to choose from.
Individual families members do not get to place orders for dinner time and have their own meals served.
So the third change you need to make is to feed the same meal to every family member.
Exceptions being infants, and teething or sick children – they may need variations of the family meal.
Do think about what you are serving and be kind though. Make sure the majority of foods on your child’s plate are ones they are comfortable with. We call these ‘safe’ foods.
Children are far more likely to eat new (or abandoned) foods if it is paired with something they enjoy. Just make sure when your child dives into their ‘favourite’ foods you do not top them up. If they are finished and there are still other foods on their plate, there are no top ups until everything is eaten (within reason).
4) Avoid bribing or rewarding with food
We need to think about is whether this short term solution is actually doing any good in the medium to long term. This goes back to the first point. Are we actually motivated to make a change?
We give our child a treat to keep them quiet whilst we race around the supermarket. The next time we go they are ready, in the carpark, screaming the place down.
They now know they can demand unhealthy food from you by changing their behaviour. This will soon translate to the dinner table – why can’t we demand these ‘treat’ foods here as well?
Likewise with the ‘eat your bean and you can have dessert’….usually turns into ‘ok lick the tip of your bean and you can have dessert’. Then finally ‘oh look you allowed the bean to be on your plate – here is your dessert’.
If they are hungry enough for dessert – they should have finished dinner. Very simple.
So how do you motivate positive behaviour and show appreciation to your children?
Time and play based rewarding.
Time based rewards are activities with you. Going to the park, playing outside with you, setting up an obstacle course together, going for a walk, going to the pools etc.
Play based rewards are activities they don’t get to do all the time that they really enjoy. Painting, getting some modelling clay to play with, making playdough, going to the park and kicking a ball around are all examples of play based rewards.
5) No negotiations at the dinner table
Serve everyone the same meal. Make it clear there will be no substituting, no dessert rewards, no extras if other foods are still uneaten – then step back and allow what will be, be.
What this means is you can sit back and enjoy your own dinner with your child. Ignore negative behaviour – the food thrown on the floor can stay on the floor until it is clean up time. Ignore requests for different meals.
If a full blown meltdown takes place – simply remove the meal, present a glass of water and allow the child to calm down. Halve the meal and return one half to your child. Try again.
It can take 10 – 15 times of a child seeing a food before they will even try it. It can be a further seven times before they will enjoy that food.
If your child tries something new, calmly wait for them to have a good go of it, then give them a smile and a little clap and congratulate them. Then go back to eating. Acknowledge their success positively, but give them space.