Struggling with a fussy eater? Hurry up and scroll down - mum and nutritionist Leanne Cooper offers realistic advice on how to cope.
Why is my child a fussy eater? That's a question many parents struggle with, especially during daily toddler-vs-parent battles over vegetables. Fussy eaters (a term that is vague, to say the least) are children, especially toddlers, who refuse to try a new food at least half of the time. Not surprisingly, about 50% of toddlers fit this description. Potentially an even greater number of preschoolers fit the bill.
Young children reject foods for many reasons. One very influential reason is that they can be naturally suspicious of new things, and they have an increasing ability to exercise their independence or control. Of course, they may find the appearance, texture, and smell of the food off-putting, or see other family members or their peers rejecting the food and wonder why they should be made to eat it.
Some of the common factors that come up in fussy eating include:
It's not always the case that we have control over the emergence of our fussy eaters. There can also be medical reasons for fussiness, ranging from constipation, enlarged tonsils, allergies, and even upsets to natural hunger cycles.
There are many possible explanations for fussy eating, and each child will be different, hence the way forward is very individual. What works for one family may not work for another.
FOUR TRUTHS ABOUT FUSSY EATING
If you have sought advice about fussy eating or researched the topic, you will have likely picked up on some common threads:
- "Be a good role model."
- "Keep offering healthy food, but don't worry if it's rejected."
- "Eat as a family."
- "It will pass."
- "Healthy children won't starve themselves."
While these are excellent recommendations which will help in the long run; in the short-term they can leave you feeling like a failure if things don't improve. So many parents, with desperation in their voices, ask, "What can I do now? I've tried every single thing I was told to try, but nothing works!"
Despair no further. You will get there, but what might help you along the way is to tuck a few simple realities under your belt and to keep them in mind before you head to the pantry and fridge tonight.
Here are four truths about fussy eating. Knowing these in advance can help to make the campaign a clearer and easier one.
So all that said and done, how do we progress? Let's take a look at some strategies that we can use to help move through this stage with minimal stress.
Natural suspicion is a factor, but it's also a handy tool
The reality is that many young children are naturally suspicious of new things. Perhaps it's a survival mechanism? Additionally, toddlers are also beginning to gain some sense of their independence and control (there are some days, of course, where, as parents, it can feel like we have none of either). This is a powerful combination and influence.
One of the most powerful tools in coping with fussy eating is to slowly but consistently dismantle the natural barrier of resistance to new foods. There are so many ways you can bring Mohammed to the mountain. For example:
- Have your child help you select produce - show them how to choose the best avocado or apple.
- Create a hands-on experience by enlisting children to help in growing vegetables in your own garden or school garden.
- Involve them in the harvesting, preparation of meals, baking, cooking, and so on. Kids love to help!
- Encourage your child to assist with other food-related tasks, such as setting the table and emptying the dishwasher.
Involvement with food has been shown to be a critical aspect in improving fussy eating habits. It really does work, though not overnight. It's an ongoing process.
KEEP IN MIND...
When they say, "It will pass," they may not mean anytime soon
"How long will this go on for?" you may ask, despairing of your little one's nutrition. You will have been told at least once that fussiness is a normal stage and it will pass. This could mean in a few days or months, a little like teething, but in reality is it's more likely that you will notice improvements towards the school years. Yes, that long! Why didn't anyone tell you that before? Now knowing this can help make going with it much easier.
It is quite common for your little budding chef to happily grate a peeled zucchini, mix it into scrambled eggs, and still eat it afterwards! Yet offering the very same thing you have prepared alone, and also revealing the ingredients, can leave you with a grumpy toddler and an untouched meal.
Sneaking in the healthy stuff can help
Now, it's true that grating all manner of veges and disguising foods in meals doesn't necessarily help overcome natural childhood suspicion, but it does address three areas to make life easier:
It helps your child gain more variety and nutrients in their diet.
It reduces your stress about their nutrition.
It ensures that, even subtly, your little one is being exposed to different tastes and textures.
Obviously, resolving fussy eating with your child's involvement is ideal, but as long as you use this technique along with others, you will all reap rewards from it.
Parents offer and children choose, but you are still in charge
We have been told for many years that forcing or coercing a child to eat a food is not advisable. Many health care professionals have been in fear of suggesting anything other than an airy and dismissive, "That's fine - just go with it."
Current research suggests that forcing a child to eat certainly isn't the way to go. On the other hand, if children are left to choose what they wish to eat, innate food preferences, such as those for sweet foods, will make up more of their energy needs than if they are provided with healthy options by parents.
Children need to be encouraged to try new foods and to try them in a number of different ways. For example, this may include a small taste-tester, a lick, a drop on the lip, mixed with different foods, cooked in different ways, offered in other meals, offered in different settings, and so on.
Also, mealtimes not only need to be family times, but time without interruption. So turn off the TV (which also advertises junk food to children) and phones - yes, that includes mobile phones! Don't forget that actions speak louder than words. Be a good role model, and it will pay off, eventually…
Keep offering, but mix it up
When reminded that you should offer a food 10-15 times to improve acceptance, you may have had a good laugh. "My preschooler has seen broccoli more times than I recall," you say.
In reality, this strategy is often very successful in the case of infants and children who are still being exposed to new foods.
Have you even considered how big the jump is from puréed food to whole carrots on your little one's plate? It's literally a leap of faith. Using foods that your child does like as a way of slowly introducing other foods can be helpful, and also the way in which you offer foods should be varied. Frittatas, sauces, rissoles, stews, fresh, or steamed are just a few ways you can begin to add or reintroduce foods.
A time and a place for everything
Trying to keep your child lolly- and junk-food free once the party-going years hit is almost impossible. Some children, once they get a taste of sweets or chocolate, can recognise them at 50 paces.
It is important to point out that home equals healthy. Keep home the place for healthy foods. That way, when you or the children are rummaging through the cupboards, the selection to choose from will cause little concern.
There is nothing wrong with the odd lamington. Just ensure that once you open the dam, you do it at a trickle. Create associations around foods, including the appropriate time, place, and reason. So a certain treat is associated with just one day and one place. For example:
Sweets at a party are just part of the occasion, but not something you need to have in the cupboard at home.
Friday ice-cream at your favourite ice-cream parlour near school, after a long week or term, can be a welcome treat.
If your preschooler drives you mad over juice, a tiny bit of good-quality juice (but not apple or pear) with only their evening meal can help iron absorption as well as quench your child's desire for such drinks (ideally for children two years and older). But water is what they should drink over the rest of the day.
Smoothies are a great treat. They're healthy, tasty, and you can relax and enjoy some time out at your favourite café together.
Given the right environment, most children will spontaneously grow out of their fussy eating in due course. So sit back, breathe easy, and have fun with food. It's not just about healthy eating, it's about nourishing the body and soul.
|Childhood nutritionist Leanne Cooper is mum to two children. Heading up Cadence Health, a nutrition education business, and Sneakys Kids Nutrition. Kiwi expat Leanne now lives on the Northern Beaches of Sydney.|
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 9 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW