We all want our kids to eat confidently and healthily, and we’re constantly bombarded with what a balanced diet ‘should’ look like. But what if our child doesn’t want to eat what we serve?
What if the sight of green on their plate leads to a meltdown, or they freak out if dinner is not one of their favourites?
If this happens in your house, take comfort in the fact you’re not alone. The majority of parents report their children to be picky at some stage. Most grow out of it naturally. But what can you do if you feel the issue is not resolving itself?*
Let’s look at some tried and tested strategies.
- Time – Changing eating habits is not something that will magically resolve itself overnight. It requires long-term and gradual relearning. Eating is a learned behaviour, just like riding a bike, so aim for small steps in the right direction rather than expecting overnight change, such as going from eating nuggets to curries.
- Enjoyment – Eating is meant to be a pleasurable experience and having a healthy relationship with food is essential for long-term results. Ideally, family meals are relaxing and enjoyable for all members of the family. This can seem counter-intuitive when you have a fussy eater, as they are often anything but relaxed. This is the challenge: to create a harmonious atmosphere.
- No pressure – Part of the way to create a relaxed family meal is to take the emphasis off the food. Stop worrying about what is being eaten – or not – and focus on family and conversation. This is easier if you’re serving one or two foods your child is comfortable with, alongside some of the foods you would like to see eaten. Your child won’t go hungry, but still has the opportunity to try a wide range of foods.
- One meal – Serving a main meal that contains something each family member likes is a great way to avoid battles at the table, and also prevents you from having to cater separately. When you provide such a meal, it should be the only meal on offer for the evening. Swapping out foods gives the message it’s okay to eat only your favourite foods. Similarly, providing a snack later in the evening to compensate for a poor appetite at dinner allows your child to reject the main meal in favour of a preferred snack.
- Familiarity – Being familiar with something makes it more comforting, and this is especially true for food. It’s no coincidence Coca-Cola puts its ads everywhere, as the company wants us to feel it’s an important part of our lives. We need to do the same with the peas and the beans. The more we see them, the more they are normalised and become part of a regular meal.
- Try, try and try again – It’s demoralising serving a food over and over again and having someone turn their nose up at it. But it takes a lot of exposure to a food before we’re able to accept it as a taste we’re comfortable with – 20-plus times is not unusual. So if you serve a food only to have it turned down, don’t then give up on it. And take heart – after a period of introducing new foods it gets easier, with the average times of exposure reducing to about six!
- Be polite – While introducing new foods to your child, be polite. Don’t be rude to food! Any food served at the table has been grown or bought, and prepared with love, so it needs to be accorded respect. If it’s not a favourite, that’s okay, but there are ways to communicate this. Declaring something ‘yucky’ doesn’t help anyone appreciate food.
- Small, small, small – We often make the mistake of piling up a plate to encourage our child to eat. For very hesitant eaters the smaller the portion, the better – at least to start with. This can mean one pea, one shaving of cheese, half a teaspoon of smoothie … A whole bowl of soup can be more intimidating than a spoonful. And if you can eat one pea ….
- Chaining – If your child eats only a limited range of foods, it can be helpful to encourage change using their favourites as a base. If your child likes chicken nuggets, for example, you could swap these for a homemade version, or add a new sauce. If you have a really selective eater, then just adding salt is a change towards accepting something new. Try to think laterally. If your child readily accepts a cheese pizza with tomato sauce spread on the base, they could try a tomato-based sauce and cheese on their plain pasta.
- Parent consistently – Food is such an emotionally charged aspect of our parenting. We as mothers often feel a hardwired need to feed our kids, and we feel panicked if our kids are not eating. This causes us to parent differently when it comes to food. Stop and think about how we tend to respond to problems with eating. It’s often very different to the way we address a situation where a child isn’t confident (for example, swimming), or if they demand to watch an inappropriate movie.
* The above is general guidance only and in no way replaces medical advice. If you have a very selective eater who eats fewer than a total of 20 foods (where a cheese pizza counts as four: base, tomato sauce, oregano and cheese), then it’s possible there is an underlying issue. In this case it is advisable to seek medical advice.
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