We all know a child who is ‘fussy’ about food. We may even have one hiding in the house. A study has shown having a ‘picky eater’ is the second most stressful childhood problem for parents (after kids who don’t want to go to school), with 70 per cent reporting their child as picky at some stage.
The good news is there are simple ways to help prevent fussy eating. (Our next blog will cover strategies specifically targeted at those already set in their eating patterns.)
1. Set the table
Mothers start this process early since not just nutrients but flavours pass from the food she eats to her baby in the womb. The more exposure a baby in utero has to a food, the more likely they will accept it later. I had a friend who craved cakes and chocolate during her first pregnancy and birthed a daughter similarly hooked. Her second pregnancy was ruled by salads and a son was born eating greens! Coincidence perhaps …
2. Early rainbows
Babies are normally happy to eat most things, and so they should be. The more variety you can pack into their early years, the better. And this includes herbs and spices, sauces, oysters, liver … Try to give your baby a sophisticated palate. Some cultures given chilli in tiny doses from eight months so
babies are comfortable with spicy family meals.
3. Empower them
Involve kids in the shopping, gardening, prepping and cooking of food to allow them to feel a valued part of the process. They can choose the veges, help plan menus and make decisions. Even toddlers can wash an apple, rip up lettuce leaves or mix a salad. In this way, you gently educate your children about food and what is a balanced and varied diet.
4. Family meals
This is critical to really ensure great eating habits. Kids closely watch their parents’ eating behaviour, watching them enjoy their veges and try new foods in a safe environment. Children naturally want to copy their parents and please them, so reproducing eating behaviour is a simple way for them to do this.
5. Family food
One of my pet hates is the idea of ‘kids’ food’. Our children are perfectly adapted to eat what we eat. Yes, in smaller amounts (mostly!), and perhaps with less spice, but eating at the table together with parents who lead by example is a very powerful motivator. Serving alternative meals for kids makes for more work and can mean a hard transition later when you’d like them to eat a chicken curry rather than a chicken nugget.
6. Familiar is soothing
The more accustomed we become to something, the more comfortable we are with it. There are a surprising number of parents who don’t put veges on their children’s plates as “they don’t eat it”. But if we make all foods a part of family meals, we get used to them, expect them, and are comfortable with them being there. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that if a food isn’t there, it can’t be eaten. And the more often we see a food, the more likely we are to try it. When introducing new foods, we can always add a favourite sauce or pair the new food with a familiar favourite to make it more appealing.
7. Food is nurturing
Food doesn’t just provide us with nutrients; it’s an essential part of our culture and family life too. Making meals an enjoyable and relaxing part of each day is important. Sometimes it’s hard to step away from our everyday stresses, but making our meals a ‘chill-out time’ is positive for all of us. When everyone looks forward to the meal it makes for a good atmosphere and it’s more likely food will be eaten and enjoyed.
8. Hungry can be good
We have become a culture almost scared to be hungry. We tend to always have a little snack on hand just in case the munchies strike. But having a handful of almonds half an hour before dinner would dampen my appetite and thus my enthusiasm for my meal. This is even more the case with kids. If they build up an appetite a couple of hours before a meal, they are far more likely to tuck in enthusiastically and be less discriminating about what’s on the plate. Yes, they may be a little (lot) whingy leading up to mealtime, but their bodies will adjust to a regular daily feeding schedule.
All kids like to make their own decisions. Providing options around food gives kids some control. Asking whether they’d prefer beans or peas with the fish hands over some of the decision-making. This needs boundaries, though – no parent wants to be a short-order cook! Meals can be discussed and agreed upon but once food is served, that is the choice. If you agree to swap it for something else, it tells your child it’s okay to do this.
10. Pushing greens
Oh, I am so guilty of this! When we constantly talk up veges it can backfire as kids figure if we need to market it so aggressively, there must be something wrong with it. We don’t make a song and dance about sausages, do we? Similarly, praising kids for eating their greens can work in the same way and, even worse, open the door to a power struggle – “Hmmm, Mum really wants me to eat these peas …”. Including kids as part of a family meal where they can watch their parents eat with pleasure is a far more effective tactic long-term.
Judith Yeabsley is a mum of two boys who is passionate about healthy food for kids. She spends most of her time supporting parents who have “picky eaters” and equipping them with the tools to help their kids become confident eaters www.theconfidenteater.com
She also works to change the food environment in schools, community groups and lunchboxes. For information on this and great recipes, see www.theartofnutrition.co.nz