5 things you can do tonight to stop fussy eating
Kitchen helping

There are so many articles, products, and books designed to show parents how to stop or reverse fussy eating. But why is it still so very hard to just get your child to eat?

Fussy eating blindsides most of us. We go from having these amazing food machines who demolish everything in sight, smearing food over their face and chair, getting half down their front – but with the intention of consuming it all. Then suddenly “bam!” food is getting chucked onto the floor, tantrums are common place, and meal time becomes a lesson in hostage negotiation.

So what can you do right now that will change the course of eating in your household forever? Here are my five must-dos;


Get real. Get honest.

Are you motivated to change your children’s eating habits? I could give you the stats –

40% of children in New Zealand are overweight or obese (60% if you are of Pacific Island decent)

50% of children have inadequate fruit and vegetable intake - a massive source of our vitamins and minerals which support children’s immune systems, brain, and body development.

90% of parents site fussy eating as a cause of stress in the family at mealtimes.

Often we see these sorts of statistics but not connect them with ours or our children’s health. Parents say they struggle to make changes to family mealtimes, however the commitment and motivation has to be there to make these changes. Ask yourself if your child’s eating is a priority in your life right now. Do you have the time and strength to make changes? If you are ready then keep reading!


Hand back the right kind of control

Little kids are switched on. It only takes one or two times of you rewarding or bribing them with a treat food before they figure out how they can make you give them that food 24/7. They are now in control of mealtimes. Instead, let them have control over positive aspects of the meal. Here are some ways to do this (depending on a child’s age);

·         Let them choose between two different foods which can be used in a meal. “Do you want beans or peas?” Try not to just say “would you like peas for dinner?” because they will say “no”. Only give them either/or options and if they cannot make it themselves, you make it for them. They will learn to make the decision next time.

·         Give them routine they can be part of. Getting their own bib or plate, helping to set the table, walking or crawling to their chair, serving up food.

·         For very young infants just starting out on solids – give them a spoon. You will still need to feed them, but they can have a go too. Before the age of one, this should have progressed to you ‘preloading’ a spoon and giving them a selection of finger foods too. After 1 year of age they should be fully feeding themselves. Giving children autonomy of how much goes into their mouth actually helps them eat more.


Take back control of what is being served

You are not a restaurant. There is no menu. Individual families members do not get to place orders for dinner time and have their own meals served. So the third change you need to make is to feed the same meal to every family member. Exceptions being infants, and teething or sick children – they may need variations of the family meal. Do think about what you are serving and be kind though. Make sure the majority of foods on your child’s plate are ones they are comfortable with. We call these ‘safe’ foods. Children are far more likely to eat new (or abandoned) foods if it is paired with something they enjoy. Just make sure when your child dives into their ‘favourite’ foods you do not top them up. If they are finished and there are still other foods on their plate, there are no top ups until everything is eaten (within reason).


No bribing or rewarding with food

This is a huge topic in its own right. But what we need to think about is whether this short term peace solution is actually doing any good in the medium to long term. This goes back to the first point. Are we actually motivated to make a change? We give our child a treat to keep them quiet whilst we race around the supermarket. The next time we go they are ready, in the carpark, screaming the place down. They now know they can demand unhealthy food from you by changing their behaviour. This will soon translate to the dinner table – why can’t we demand these ‘treat’ foods here as well? Likewise with the ‘eat your bean and you can have dessert’….usually turns into ‘ok lick the tip of your bean and you can have dessert’. Then finally ‘oh look you allowed the bean to be on your plate – here is your dessert’. If they are hungry enough for dessert – they should have finished dinner. Very simple. So how do you motivate positive behaviour and show appreciation to your children? Time and play based rewarding. Time based rewards are activities with you. Going to the park, playing outside with you, setting up an obstacle course together, going for a walk, going to the pools etc. Play based rewards are activities they don’t get to do all the time that they really enjoy. Setting up some paints, getting some modelling clay to play with, making playdough, going to the park and kicking a ball around are all examples of play based rewards.


Leave negotiations for the workplace – not the dinner table

Once you have served everyone the same meal. You have made it clear there will be no substituting, no dessert rewards, no extras if other foods are still uneaten – then step back and allow what will be, be. What this means is you can sit back and enjoy your own dinner with your child. Ignore negative behaviour – the food thrown on the floor can stay on the floor until it is clean up time. Ignore requests for different meals. If a full blown meltdown takes place – simply remove the meal, present a glass of water and allow the child to calm down. Halve the meal and return one half to your child. Try again. It can take 10 – 15 times of a child seeing a food before they will even try it. It can be a further seven times before they will enjoy that food. If your child tries something new, calmly wait for them to have a good go of it, then give them a smile and a little clap and congratulate them. Then go back to eating. Acknowledge their success positively, but give them space.


So in summary

  • Get real with yourself. Are you ready to make a change? If not you will just end up making allowances ‘oh just this one time’….’I’m sure not EVERY rule needs to be followed’…your child will expand on this weakness and all your efforts will come undone.
  • Allow your child control of how much they are eating and give them responsibilities at meal times.
  • Take back control of what is being offered to your child. You say what foods are in the house and what foods get served at meals.
  • Eliminate food as a bribe or reward. Find alternative ways of showing your children appreciation. Question whether bribing is having the desired affect?

Take off the negotiator hat. Enjoy your meal. Relax with what your child is doing. Be happy in the knowledge you have provided them with good quality and varied foods. They will eat it – just maybe not ALL the time.

Hannah Gentile has a Master in Human Nutrition and specialises in early childhood feeding frustrations across New Zealand and Australia.

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