Practical tips on dealing with children who are fussy eaters and how parents should behave
With a two year old son of my own, I am no stranger to trying every trick in the book to get him to expand his repertoire of beige foods (chicken nuggets, fish fingers, potato, pasta, bread, bananas, cereal – you get the picture?) and embrace some colours (or maybe one other) of the rainbow in his diet.
Experts say that fussy eating is more common in children with heightened sensory sensitivity and it has been traced back to genetics. What’s important to note is that most picky eating habits kick in from about the age of two and generally disappear anywhere between three to six years old. Neophobia is the fear and anxiety associated with any new foods (most commonly experienced by two year olds) however, as they grow older and learn to cope better with the unknown, so their anxiety dissipates.
Since embarking on the journey of becoming a mommy and starting this blog, I have become hyper aware of how parents react to and deal with their children’s eating habits – including my own!
This is a topic that I take especially seriously because parental behaviour around feeding times is one of the greatest influences on our little people’s relationship with food for the rest of their lives. We sometimes aren’t even aware that we are behaving in a certain way, or that our own bad habits now have a greater impact, and it requires taking a step back to consider how our actions (including all the little things we say) may be internalised in all the wrong ways by our children.
Now, while we have limited or no control over some of our children’s challenges with food, we absolutely have some control over their relationship with food. Here are some tips to keep in mind the next time you serve something up to your little ones:
Never EVER force the issue
‘Gently guiding’ a spoonful of food into your child’s clenched jaw is never ok – as tempting as it sometimes may seem to get them to just taste something. The consensus amongst feeding professionals however is that any type of extreme pressure or force is traumatising for a child. Sometimes the things that you may perceive to be minimal may, in fact, be severe for your child: your child’s reaction will guide you (tears, crying or vomiting are loud and clear red flags that your are causing extreme pressure for your child.) Watch for and listen to the signs, even when they aren’t able to yet vocalise how they feel.
Repeated exposure is recommended as the most effective tactic to overcome neophobia: a child should be exposed to the same food between 10-15 times, without any pressure to eat it. Feeding your child the things they actually like is a good thing (even if you feel a little boring) but do it in conjunction with exposing them to new foods. That means that persistence is key (even when your pet is the one eating the carrot and cucumber batons that have been artistically sprinkled all over the kitchen floor).
Ditch the labels and name-calling
Us parents are quick to find names for our kids, especially the ones we hear other parents talking about, leading us to quickly jump to the assumption that our child is/has something based on what we believe may be the ‘tell-tale symptoms’. If you label your child as a ‘fussy eater’ or any similar names – and then proceed to call them this in their presence – you are setting the scene for them to conform to these expectations.
Don’t get caught up in ‘the worry cycle’
One sure way to elevate your child’s anxiety around mealtimes is a parent who notably stresses about how much their child is getting into his/her tummy. Now as parents, it is our natural instinct to worry about our children’s growth and development: that is our role as nurturers, after all. The problem is that – largely due to the endless amount of information at our fingertips at any given moment – we worry ourselves about our children’s challenges around eating, which may be totally unfounded. The result is some seriously anxious parents who, in turn, transfer that stress onto their kids, and so begins a vicious cycle of worry and anxiety for both the parent and the child (something that has been termed ‘The Worry Cycle’). Remember two little words: KEEP CALM.
Avoid shame, guilt and bribes
From the less severe – “If you have one more bite of these yummy veggies, you can watch Paw Patrol”– to the slightly more so – “If you loved mommy you would eat these vegetables.” and to the downright extreme – “If you don’t eat your veggies, you’ll be punished.” – all of these ‘tactics’ are often potentially damaging to your little one’s relationship with food for the remainder of their lives.
Whether to please you or to avoid punishment, you don’t want your child to learn to eat for all the wrong reasons: something that will no doubt stand in the way of them developing a healthy awareness of their own internal cues, now and later on in life.
Rely a little less on distractions
We are all guilty of it…turning on the TV or iPad to get your child to sit in their chair and taste the meal you desperately want them to like. Whilst we may believe that turning on a screen may get a few more bites in, what actually happens is that kids zone out: something that experts believe interferes with a child’s ability to tune into their own appetite in the long-term. Over and above this, children can actually become too distracted to eat in the moment. I have seen it, first hand, with my own son: he becomes so utterly transfixed by the screen that he is unable to focus on taking another mouthful of food (I’m convinced that if I got all dressed up in a Barney the Dinosaur suit, he wouldn’t even glance my way).
We are human and sometimes we turn to these distractions in sheer desperation but the point is everything in moderation: don’t make a habit of turning on the TV/iPad with every meal. Sit down together for real family interactions during mealtimes, keeping the distractions as the exception rather than the norm.
My two cents:
A simple rule that every parent should remember during mealtimes – from picky eating experts Katja Rowell and Jenny McGlothlin – is to take a step back and remember their role: for the parent, it’s deciding when, where and what should be offered. For the child, it’s deciding whether and how much to eat. Pretty simple, no?