How many times have you caught yourself bribing your child to eat? Too many? Mhmmm, we feel you. For those living with picky kids, the phrases ‘eat your vegetables, and then you can watch TV’, ‘just one more mouthful for Mummy’, and ‘brrr…open wide for the mash potato plane’ haunt mealtimes. It’s no lie that children can be temperamental dining companions. But fussiness is a natural part of your little one’s development. Not only is announcing food preferences a way of asserting independence, but anything from a change in routine, such as starting nursery, to illness can affect appetite too.
Though food strikes may leave you feeling exasperated and worried – not to mention anxious about family gatherings or birthday parties – there are plenty of ways to break such food-related power struggles. So, put down the Coco Pops and back away from the chicken nuggets, here are our mum-approved strategies to help even the pickiest eaters indulge in a more varied diet. Phew.
Start very, very small
Sure, you’re not going to give your little one an entire bowl of carrots; but according to new research, many parents still offer children huge portions of new foods, which would – understandably – overwhelm them. As a rule of thumb, always should start with teeny tiny pieces of such foods; try a crumb of cheese, a single pea or part of a noodle. Encourage your little one by saying, ‘this is so easy – you could be finished in a less than a second!’ Once your child eats it, offer him some food he does enjoy. At future meals, increase the portion size of the new food and gradually phase out the follow-up treat.
Did you know your child has to try something ten to fifteen times before he grows to like it? No wonder mealtime tantrums are such a regular fiasco! While introducing new foods can seem like a daunting task, the only solution is perseverance. It’s as simple as that, really. Once you get the ball rolling with the strategy outlined above, the quicker your kiddie will readily accept new foods.
But, always respect your child’s appetite – albeit, lack of one
If your child really isn’t hungry, don’t force him to eat or ‘clean his plate’. This will only exacerbate any frustration and anxiety experienced at mealtimes. Worse still, your child may become less sensitive to his own hunger or satiety cues. Always serve small, manageable portions and give your little one the chance to ask for more food on his own accord.
Limit snacks and drinks
If you scale back on snacks and drinks – ideally, to three meals and one to three snacks per day – your child will be more inclined to try something new by virtue of him being truly hungry (makes sense, right?) Doctors claim that fussy eaters are usually ‘grazers’ – that is, children who pick at small amounts of food throughout the day. By establishing set meals and snack times then, you’ll ensure your kiddie is more open to trying new foods because he won’t be so full of juice, milk, biscuits and goodness knows what else.
Keep your cool
Never make a big deal when your child tries something new for the first time. The more laid-back and casual you are about (offer him a piece of banana, but don’t watch him eat it for example), the more likely he’ll follow through with it. Don’t praise, don’t punish, and definitely don’t fuss – just try to be as relaxed as possible.
Invite an adventurous friend for dinner
Although you and your partner’s eating habits will, undeniably, influence your child, no one can make a bigger impact than his friends. A study by a Penn State colleague found that nursery-goers were more likely to taste a slice of mango when they saw their classmates doing it. Sometimes, all it takes is a pal to snatch a green bean for your little one to try it too. Why not harness the power of peers and invite over one of your child’s adventurous buddies to set a good example?
Minimise distractions at the table
Always ensure mealtimes are quiet, relaxed and distraction-free. If a cartoon is blaring from the next room or a sibling is running around like a headless chicken, your child may lose interest to eat.
Focus on flavour
Surprisingly, not all picky kids want bland, boring food. Some seek crunch and/or a hint of flavour. If your child prefers spice, season chicken or crab cakes with a little chilli powder, or if he likes sweetness, glaze carrots with maple syrup or honey.
It can be useful to take (subtle) videos or photos of accomplishments to remind your child that he did like a new food. For instance, you could casually say, ‘oh, look – last week you tried baby carrots and enjoyed them, didn’t you? So today, we’re having carrots and dip for your snack.’
Slow and steady wins the race
You may think it’s downright absurd to puree foods for your toddler, but if you make the consistency smoother, it can be easier for him to consume a new flavour. As the weeks go by, make the puree lumpier and lumpier until he’s able to eat the food in its whole form.
Take home message
Yes – fussy eaters can make you want to tear your hair out, stamp your feet and even throw a temper tantrum, but take comfort in the fact that your child’s food preferences are malleable and will change…eventually. Though new eating habits certainly won’t happen overnight, there are small steps you can take to help your little one cultivate a healthy and positive attitude to food. Bottom line: don’t give up. Persevere and you will get results. Feel free to browse the rest of our Younger Child advice page for more tips on bringing up your youngin.