Is your child a fussy eater?
Is dinner time a battle ground?
Does your child say no more often than yes at meal times?
Have you given up trying and now rely on the staple foods you know that your fussy eater will like?
One of the most common complaints that I hear from parents is that their child is a fussy eater, so I wanted to put my thoughts on this down into writing (I have a few theories) and to provide a space where you can share tips with others on what has or has not worked for you.
The biggest influence in the mealtime battleground is control.
So who is in control?
The first lesson that a baby learns is to cry in order for their needs to be met. They will perhaps have a range of different cries – tired cry, hungry cry, bored cry.
There will ensue a period of training whereby the baby trains the adult to recognise and meet their various cries and needs respectively whilst the baby learns which cry works best and what type of response each provokes, and how far they need to push it to get the response they need.
They then learn that by throwing things on the floor an adult will pick it up …. but only for so long.
Once they become a toddler, they (and their parent) are subjected to huge feelings of not being quite in control over their lives as they would like to be. They want to decide what to wear, how mummy holds their hand, whether they are strapped into the high chair. Their desires are not always (in our view) logical or practical. We can’t always allow them to have what they want, and it is our job to teach them this in a firm but fair manner. What it boils down to is that as babies grow into toddlers and then children, they want to have a greater degree of control over their lives.
Common battlegrounds between toddlers / children and their parents are clothing, foods, wake up times, bedtimes, and more often than not – how things are done! The birth of the fussy eater.
Mealtimes can be a massive battle ground between a fussy eater and their parents.
Let the battle commence … oh it already has!
In the red corner: The parent:
The parent’s job / desire is to feed their children as healthy a diet as possible, and this means amongst other things making sure their child eats their 5 a day, that they eat enough (so they can grow big and strong), and that they don’t get a sweet tooth / overweight or tooth decay.
In the blue corner – The child (a.k.a fussy eater):
At meal times children can quickly learn that they have control over something the parent wants i.e. how much / what they will or won’t eat. Children (toddlers especially) react very badly to feeling forced into doing something. They want it on their terms. All too often, following one too many lost battles, life gets in the way. Parents are worn down, tired, fed up of wasting uneaten food and so they find a common ground (e.g. the vegetables the child will eat) and stick to what works. Consequently some children grow up with a limited range of foods that they will eat, and the parent almost gives up on pushing the boundaries any further.
I am not going to suggest any clever ways to hide vegetables in meals
Although this is a useful tactic, and has it’s place, it certainly should not be relied upon long term. It does not solve the problem of the fussy eater. It is a form of trickery and if your child gets a whiff that they are being coerced in some way the barriers will come up and you will lose the trust that you are building. It won’t help to inspire your child to make their own healthy choices as they grow up because they may grow up oblivious to the fact that they’ve eaten many of the foods that they claim not to like. How will they learn to make sensible food decisions in the future?
So how can we tackle the problem of the fussy eater?
Before we begin the precursor to this journey has to be to forget about the control. When you start to relax your child will too and then you can start to have some fun.
Give them some choice.
Once a week have a ‘bits ‘n’ bobs’ taster session. Put a range of different foods out on the table and have fun trying different foods. Dips and dippers are an excellent start to this. It doesn’t even have to be a meal – it could be a fun rainy afternoon activity. You could try the blindfold game where one person is blindfolded and they have to guess the food they are tasting.
A cheese board is another great way to start experimenting with different foods.
Alternatively, sometimes if I am introducing a new meal that I think my children will be apprehensive about I make a safe option to go alongside it. I then allow my children to fill up on the safe option whilst having a taste of the more exotic option. Now, this is not practical every day of the week, but once in a while it is fantastic for your child to see you try something new, and to give them the choice to try it without the pressure to eat a whole plateful of the new food.
Talk about food
(my absolute favourite past time – even above eating it!)
Start a dialogue around food at the dinner table. Encourage your child to describe the flavours, textures, aroma and appearance of food. This not only helps to broaden their vocabulary, but gives them a new way of expressing how they feel about food rather than the all too familiar “I don’t like it”. They will start to be able to explain why they don’t like the food which may give you a greater understanding of their perceptions and preferences.
You could go one step further and ban the words nice / nasty / yuk and yummy when describing foods and encourage the use of sensory adjectives instead. The benefits of doing this are that you will start to gain a greater understanding of what it is that your child actually does or does not like and your child will stop thinking of food in the black and white terms of like / dislike and see that there are many, many nuances of flavour and texture offered by foods. If you decide to take me up on this tip – you will find some sensory vocabulary lists (here) very useful as a way of helping your child to choose the right words to describe a food.
A fun way to kick start the use of sensory vocabulary is to play the game where you have to describe a food to others without mentioning it’s name. You could even challenge them not to mention colour or shape. and rely on textures, flavours and aromas instead. For example. This food is crackly, salty and light as a feather. It does not grow on land, it is not an animal. Can you guess what it is? Guesses welcome in the comments below.
Remember that children have a different palette to ours.
Some children are very sensitive to strong flavours and literally can’t handle the sensory overload. The vocabulary tip above will help you to understand what it is that they struggle with exactly and you can then work on introducing flavours and textures that start very mild and build up.
Remember that your child’s palette will change over time so give them plenty of
non-confrontational opportunities to try a tiny taste of something new, they may surprise themselves. An example of this might be curry. I always serve a bowl of natural yogurt with curry and my children help themselves to as much or as little as they need and stir it into their curry to reduce the spiciness of the curry. In my opinion the curry is not that spicy to start with, but to their taste buds it is.
It is also worth considering the situation from your child’s perspective. Can you remember a time where you have felt anxious, stressed, or just not hungry. Picture how your body physically feels. Imagine somebody persistently trying to get you to eat when you feel like this. How does it feel? How will it feel when the food is in your mouth? When I try this exercise, my mouth goes dry and my throat constricts. A dry mouth and taut throat make it almost impossible to chew and swallow effectively, thus taking away any sense of enjoyment whatsoever. Try to remember this at meal times. Use weekends and holidays to practice a bit of playfulness and mindfulness around meal times.
Allow your child to eat with more than just their mouth
The saying is true, we do eat with our eyes, even as adults. So it is useful to remember that it may be down to something as simple as the appearance that prevents your child from even trying a food. Once in a while (not at every single meal) have a bit of fun with appearance – make a picture on the plate with food- get your child to join in. Use sites like this to help inspire you. I would caution you not to use this tactic at every meal time as it can get tired, and it’s an awful lot of effort to put in.
Get your child involved.
There are numerous ways of doing this and I recommend you try all, but at different times – do it subtly – maybe one a week.
* Put all foods out in the centre of the table and allow everyone to help themselves – if your child is too young to do this. Serve up in front of them allowing them to have larger portions of some foods and smaller portions of others
*Get your child involved in the preparation. They could peel the carrots, stir the stew, lay the table, put items onto a baking tray etc. In this way they will learn the effort that goes into preparation of food. But also if they have invested some of their own effort into something, they are likely to be more open minded about wanting to try these foods at the end.
*Get your child involved in planning. Look through recipe books together and talk about the foods. Get them to choose a few meals they would like to help make. Involve them in shopping for the food and preparing it. Give it a name – Tom’s fish pie.
My children used to adore a game whereby they would write a menu for the meal I was preparing. They wrote place settings and seated ‘guests’ and took drinks orders. They would offer a choice of desserts and take orders for that as well. It was a way of them feeling that they had control over the meal, and it gave them some insight into what was coming.
The onus of ‘will they eat it or won’t they’ was off and they could just enjoy the role play.
Lay down your arms but never give up.
You know that you are never going to give up, but this has to stop being a battle ground. Relax the reins and allow at least one opportunity a week to break away from the normal routine at dinner time and try something new – whether it be a new approach to the way meal times run, or a new meal that the family has not tried before, or a game based around food such as the role play suggested above. If you are more relaxed about food then so will your children be. It’s o.k. to serve the foods that you know your fussy eater likes for 6 out of 7 days in the week. We are humans after all, we can’t create all singing all dancing dining experiences everyday of the week, but once in a while do something out of the norm and you may just be surprised at the results.
When your fussy eater senses that you are more relaxed about their diet then they will relax too. Allow them a small sense of control without the battle first. Keep talking about food and building that dialogue using sensory vocabulary.
I hope that some of what I have said has inspired you to try something new at meal times. May this be the beginning of a family love affair with food and many enjoyable experiences for every member of the family.
I have collected some resources for you to use including some sensory vocabulary flash cards that you can make use of. They can be found here
Please do comment below with any tips or ideas you’d like to share with others.