Let’s be honest – being the parent of a fussy eater is hard work. It’s hard to see your child struggling to eat a nutritious diet. It’s hard to see most of the food you cook end up in the bin. It’s hard to see every mealtime as a challenge when all you want to do is just enjoy eating together as a family.
Fussy eating can take a huge emotional toll on parents – and sadly, it's far too easy to fall prey to blame and shame!. And often, parents simply give up because it’s too hard to keep trying to offer your child foods that they continually reject.
But, it’s time to banish the guilt, stop the self-blame game, and keep trying. It’s time to approach this journey with a fresh perspective. After all, fussy eating, which can often surface between the ages of two and six, is a phase most children will grow out of. However, the strategies we implement to deal with food refusal, along with the food choices offered to them during this stage, can have a huge impact on how willing they are to try new foods and how their eating habits are ultimately shaped.
Is my child a fussy eater?
A toddler who refuses to try a new food at least half of the time can be considered a fussy eater (and this is usually the case for 50% of toddlers!). It is no surprise that food issues are a source of stress for parents - and no doubt the reason this blog caught your eye.
Can fussy eating be prevented?
As part of their ongoing ‘Children in the 90s’ study, researchers at Bristol University in England discovered that delaying your baby’s introduction to lumpier foods may contribute to fussy eating habits.The study focused on a group of babies who were not given lumpy foods until they were 10 months or older.
Research found that one in five were fussy eaters by the age of 15 months. Compared to babies who were introduced to lumpy foods between the ages of six and nine months, the fussy eaters were twice as likely to have firm food preferences and were more likely to insist on baby foods well after their first birthday.
This research suggests that giving your baby a wide variety of lumpy or chewy foods between the ages of six and nine months will broaden their food appreciation and reduce the likelihood of fussy eating later on. If you are past this phase, fear not. It is never too late to work on improving a fussy eater’s food repertoire.
Banish the guilt
The one thing that most parents – especially mums – are good at is feeling guilty. So, firstly, let’s banish that guilt. We are all time-poor parents who are simply trying to do the best for our children.
Bust the myths about eating
Below are the 3 main myths about eating that many people believe to be true… and here are the reasons why they’ve got it wrong:
- People believe eating is instinctive and easy. And the truth is… they are WRONG. Eating is the most complex task a human engages in:
- It requires every organ to function correctly and work in harmony with each other
- Every muscle in the body is involved in the process of eating – swallowing alone requires 26 muscles and 6 cranial nerves to coordinate!
It is the only activity that requires all 8 of a child’s sensory systems to work
So, for many children, eating is NOT EASY at all.
Some people assume that eating is a two-step process for children: You sit, you eat. I wish it was that simple! For fussy or problem eaters, it requires 32 steps for them to overcome these issues before actually eating their food.
“If your child is hungry, they will eat”
I’m sure we’ve all heard this one before! Over time, children who experience pain when eating or do not have the necessary skills to eat will suppress their appetites and not even register if they are hungry. Statistically, this is only true for 4-6% of children with feeding problems.
Perseverance is key
You may need to offer an individual food up to 16 times or more before your baby will choose to eat it. However, around half of parents only persist two or three times before giving up on that food altogether. And, I get it, food wastage is not something any parent is ok with. Try to view this as an investment in your child’s eating skills and future, just like paper and pens are an investment in their ability to express themselves, create and eventually write and learn. You can also freeze leftovers and try again in a few weeks.
Celebrate the small wins
It’s important to understand that your situation is totally unique to you and your child, and so are your successes.
Remember, change is a slow process. Be sure to respect wherever you and your child are on this journey, and embrace the challenges together. It is also important to celebrate every change you are able to make, no matter how small – every new food, recipe or positive eating behaviour added to your child’s diet is a win.
Try and model positive eating habits
It’s what we do, not what we say that is most impactful on our children, and this is no different when it comes to eating. Research indicates that while around 50% of toddlers are fussy eaters, around 25% of them have parents who admit to being fussy eaters too!
If you only eat a narrow range of foods, your child may mirror this behaviour. Try not to limit your child’s food variety to only those foods you prefer. It may be that your child’s tastes are different!
Keep calm and carry on
Parents who feel worried about their child’s eating habits may try to force or cajole their child into eating their meals. If your child resists, mealtimes can become stressful. Try to avoid food becoming a power struggle by expressing indifference to your child’s willingness or unwillingness to eat their meal. Always serve new foods along with a ‘safe’ food you know your child is likely to eat. A parent's job is to provide what’s on the menu, and the child’s job is to decide what to eat.
Top Mealtime strategies
- Be a good role model. Eat as a family wherever possible and eat a wide variety of foods.
- Ask your child to help prepare a meal. They are more likely to eat a meal they have helped to make.
- Offer a range of colourful foods on the plate and allow your child to pick and choose what they will eat from there. Present food attractively. We eat with our eyes first!
- Encourage self-feeding and exploration of food from an early age. Try not to stress about the mess. Children learn about food through touch as well as taste.
- Encourage them to eat sitting down, not running around from an early age.
For many children, vegetables are the biggest challenge and for those who do eat veggies, it is veggie variety that needs to be worked on. The second most rejected food group is protein, and this food group is key for ultimate growth and development.
Boost every mouthful
To support parents in getting better nutrition into their children and reducing meal time battles, I developed the Wholesome Child+ range of wholefood boosters. This way, parents can boost foods their children are happy to eat with the nutrients they need to thrive. Knowing your kids are receiving what they need makes it easier to relax during mealtimes while working through the other strategies to affect long term changes to your child’s repertoire.
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