dealing with fussy eating toddlers
fussy eating

The ‘No Plan B’ Approach

How to deal with fussy eating to prevent mealtimes from becoming stressful in your home…

As a mom who loves talking about nourishing children with only the healthiest ingredients, and yet I have a toddler whom is going through an extremely fussy-eating phase, I find myself questioning whether I have actually done enough to ensure that my son has been exposed to enough of the healthy stuff.

Lately I find myself increasingly frustrated at my son’s refusal to try anything new, anything healthy and anything that hasn’t been crumbed or deep-fried. Like most parents, I worry that he isn’t getting in enough quality nutrients and that, if I don’t give him what he enjoys eating, he will go hungry.

After conducting some research on this topic around picky eating in toddlers and chatting to my paed, it is comforting to know that this phase is totally normal and can last up until our little ones are five years old. This is all information that I had already read about however, when a parent is experiencing it first-hand, our better judgement becomes clouded by the usual paranoia when it concerns one’s own child.

In one of my last posts, I discussed top ten tips for dealing with fussy easting but something I wanted to talk about specifically in this post is based on some advice I recently received. It’s something I am guilty of doing constantly and I know most parents are guilty of it too: when our kids refuse to eat their meals, we start serving them up something else that we think they’ll like, purely to get some food into their little bellies. We launch straight into ‘selling’ different dishes – anything other than the offending meal in question – describing food as excitedly as possibly, like a cordon bleu trained waiter eager to to get our tiny patron to sample anything.

This is the ‘Plan B’ – the substitute meal – or the Plan, C, D, E and F in many cases of sheer desperation.

The problem with this approach is that your child quickly learns that if they don’t like what is put in front of them, they will eventually be served up something that they do actually like: a logical connection for children and as they enter their toddler years and discover the novelty of calling the shots.

I have witnessed this first-hand in my own household: my son has worked out that he can simply ask for toast or crackers (or something he equally enjoys), in place of the nutritious plate of chicken and veggies sitting in front of him, and mama will magically make them appear. So while I understand that fussy eating is common in toddlers, after taking a step back and looking at my actions, I realise that my own behaviour has not helped the situation.

This is one of the biggest reasons, I believe, that my son feels he can call the shots when it comes to mealtimes and something that needs undoing if I want to start instilling better eating habits in him.

If, like me, you are concerned that your child is going to starve – something that is quite a controversial topic when it comes to dealing with fussy eating – here are a few tactics that I have researched, which I have started putting into practice in my own home:

  • Make the change and stick with it. As with everything else when it comes to raising little people, they need time to adjust to change and you need the patience that goes along with it. You are going to experience a few tears and tantrums along the way but soon your child will realise that they can’t always have it their way when it comes to mealtimes. Your child will soon learn that if they don’t eat the meal placed in front of them, they will need to wait until the next meal or snack time to eat again.
  • Always be mindful about what your child needs. Sometimes your child may have a genuine disliking toward a certain meal and you shouldn’t force it on them. That is not what this approach is about – rather it’s about exposing them to new and nutritious foods by breaking them out of a cycle of only being served a limited number of favourite or ‘safe’ foods.
  • Remove food after 20-30 minutes. Provide them with enough of an opportunity to eat their meal but remove it after some time. This will assist with their understanding that they need to eat during specific mealtimes or else they will need to wait until their next meal or snack.
  • Follow a routine when it comes to meal and snack times to assist your child with pre-empting when he or she will next be fed. If your child is fed erratically and constantly throughout the day (even if meals are smaller), they will soon learn that, if they don’t eat the meal in front of them, there will be something else to eat immediately afterwards. You should be aiming for three main meals and two snacks (one mid morning and one in the afternoon).
  • When offering your little one a new food, serve it up with something familiar. This will instill a level of comfort to avoid overwhelming your child i.e.: if your child has always shied away from leafy greens, but always been a fan of potato, serve the two together.
  • Serve two courses. Follow a meal with something sweet and healthy like some fresh fruit or fruit purèe. This will ensure that your child won’t go hungry if they flat-out refuse to eat their main meal, and that they’ll be getting in some quality nutrients.
  • Keep things exciting. If your child point blank refuses to eat the meal your prepared for them yesterday, wait a few days before serving it up again, and when you do, serve it up in a different way.
  • Take it slow. If you find that your child is becoming increasingly stressed at mealtimes as with your new ‘No Plan B’ approach, only try new foods every second day to give them a break.
  • Get family and caregivers on board. If you are relying on others to care for your child, you need to ensure that they are following the same approach as in your home.
  • Remove distractions. This is something that I have pointed out in my previous posts and yet something I am guilty of during many mealtimes. If you want to give your child the best shot of engaging with different foods, you need to turn off the TV, iPad, phone, toys and just about anything that is going to cause too much of a distraction.
  • Know when to seek professional help: if you are genuinely concerned that your child is not growing and developing as a result of their fussy eating, consult your medical advisor.

I hope you found this approach on dealing with fussy eating helpful – keep a look out for more posts like this one as I navigate my way through my toddler’s picky eating phase. For other posts on Fussy eating, have a look at; Top 10 Tips for Dealing with a Fussy Eater, Fussy Eating 101 and Mindful Parenting & Fussy Eating.

*The above information should never replace the advice of your paed, nurse or GP.

Dealing with fussy eating in children
fussy eating

Mindful Parenting & Fussy Eating

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?

*If you are genuinely concerned that your child’s growth and development is suffering as a result of their restrictive diets, speak to your medical practitioner for some guidance.

*The above should never replace the advice of your GP, Paed or Nurse.