Do you have a picky or fussy eater in your house? If so, your not alone because ¼ to ⅓ of all children will go through some feeding difficulty between birth to 10 years (1). If you haven’t already tried ways to get your child to eat then these mealtime musts are essential to put into place.
Children will learn to eat new foods and expand their diet given the opportunity to try new foods (exposure), as well as other mealtime musts. This blog explores 6 mealtime musts to get your child to eat well.
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What causes picky eating/fussy eating?
It’s easy to forget that eating is a learned behaviour but we can teach our children to eat well.
There are lots of reasons for picky or fussy eating. Here you will find 7 reasons why my child refuses to eat and these include neophobia, sensory issues, tiredness, taste, appetite, medical reasons and pressure.
So now you may understand why our child is not eating. You will be asking how do I encourage my fussy eater to eat?
6 mealtime musts to get your child to eat
- Exposure to new foods
Research has shown that children need to be exposed to a new food between 10 – 15 times before they will accept it as safe/comfortable in their diets. (2)
Exposure can be done in a variety of ways and requires some persistence but believe me it pays off eventually. You can expose them to new foods outside of mealtimes as well so they can become used to them.
Here are some ways to expose them to new foods;
- Offer small portions (it doesn’t have to be much). Then build it up when they are comfortable with it.
- Have the food near or on the plate. You can also try a separate plate (called a learning plate) so they foods are not touching.
- Let them help you prepare foods or even just watch in the kitchen.
- Try different food based play activities
- Expose them at different times and meals (try one day and then again a few days later or following week).
- Role model
Role models could be parents, other family members/caregivers or anyone who looks after children. As children learn by copying others in learning to eat also known as role play. This is the best way for children to learn to eat and enjoy eating when they are copying others. (3).
A study by Helen Hendy, Ph. D., studied preschoolers’ eating habits and found they were more likely to try mango when they saw another child taste it. (4).
So having a taste of a new food is a start and with repeated tries they will hopefully learn to enjoy the new food.
In order to do this, they need to have the opportunities to eat with others. By eating with your kids at mealtimes or by having peers eating together at nursery you’re letting them copy you or others.
If you’re providing and eating a variety of healthy foods in front of your child, then your child is likely to follow suit.
Role modelling and eating together brings other benefits too. The social aspects such as communication skills and bonding, table manners, using cutlery and so on.
Another mealtime must is being consistent with your rules around food and eating. Having a routine will help your child establish good eating habits.
Having regular mealtimes and boundaries can help reduce anxiety before mealtimes. So you could let them know what food will be served and for how long
If you aim to have a routine of three meals and 2 – 3 snacks a day, this will provide consistency. It will also allow time for your child to be hungry between meals so they will hopefully eat.
- No pressure
As a parent myself I found over the years that this is one of the hardest strategies to put into place. Resisting the urge to make even the tiniest comment about eating I have found so difficult.
We usually mean well and don’t even realise these things are pressure. For example ‘just try a bite’ or ‘have one try and see if you like it’ are actually forms of pressure. Other forms of pressure include coaxing, rewarding and forcing. You might like to check out this blog on 7 reasons why your child refuses to eat
So how do we apply no pressure to eat?
Simply serve up the food and place it on the table. Make no comments about it or how much they eat. You can comment on how much you are enjoying your food, what it tastes like but only make positive comments.
By making comments on their eating it can shift the focus to them and become a power struggle between you and them which is when mealtime battles can take off. We want mealtimes to be happy and enjoyable, not battlegrounds.
A combination of repeated exposure to new foods and not piling on the pressure will really help.
- Serve family style
If you can serve family style which means eating together and the same meal it makes it so much easier for the cook to make just one meal. You’re also helping with role modelling by eating together as discussed earlier in this blog.
If your child struggles with foods touching/mixed or likes plain foods you can also make the same meals as the rest of the family but separate out the foods. Eg, lay out vegetables separate from the pasta and sauce so they can help themselves to how much they want.
- Serve one new food with other accepted food
It can feel like constant rejection when you have a fussy eater and so frustrating when they reject lovely food you have spent time cooking.
Serve one new food with foods they already eat then you know they are likely to eat something on the plate. This way they are becoming used to the look, smell and other sensory attributes of the new food and moving along the 6 steps to eating
You can also be more accommodating by offering a choice of the new food. This gives the child a little control which can help with trying a new food.
For example whilst your planning meals offer them a choice of a new vegetable. You could say something like ‘would you like broccoli or spinach with your dinner’?
How do I get my child to be a happy eater?
Being a happy eater is about eating foods because you want to and enjoying them.
If you’re getting your child to try new foods and they are enjoying them then you’re on the right track!.
You can’t force or pressure your child to like and enjoy certain foods and lets face it there are some foods they are never going to enjoy.
Raising a happy and healthy eater involves following the 6 mealtime musts I have given you. In addition there are lots of fun ways to involve your child with food which can help. You may like to check out this blog on 6 steps to eating nutritious foo and ways to make it fun
Now that you have mastered the mealtime musts to help your child to eat well you can find further strategies in my managing fussy eating in children course. It also provides detail on the steps to eating, food language and more.