Like most parents, I struggled to get my two children to eat a varied diet as they were both incredibly fussy eaters as toddlers. For the first few years of their lives, I made things that I knew they would eat, just glad that they wouldn’t be hungry. I knew that I was making a rod for my own back, but I allowed them to be fussy and rarely challenged them. It did bother me though and I knew that I had to deal with it at some point.
It’s something that I’ve dealt with now with both of my children (although it’s an ongoing project) and I thought I’d post up my strategies in case other parents might find them useful/ interesting. I’m not saying that these will work for everyone but they are working for me.
Here are the rules that I followed/ continue to follow:
- We all eat dinner together at the table for the majority of meals.
- I started by making meal plans based on the food that the children liked but adapted them for the whole family. e.g. they loved fish fingers so I bought brown rolls, good quality fish cakes, salad and tartare sauce. There was something in the meal that they liked and other things that they hadn’t tried. I still use the strategy of making unfamiliar foods familiar. I regularly let my kids put food they’re unsure about in a tortilla wrap or on a sandwich and they tend to try anything this way. If they eat it once, they’ll eat it again, often without the bread the next time.
- I put all different foods out separately on plates or in bowls. My kids loved helping themselves to food and would put something from most bowls on their plate. I then encouraged them to have a taste of everything on their plate but I never made them eat more than a mouthful if they didn’t like it. Alternatively I let them make their food, like pizza or homemade breaded chicken. My youngest started by just having his pizza base with peas and cheese on it (gross) but from that point, in his mind he liked pizza and gradually he ate any variety. You’ll be glad to know I don’t need the separate plates anymore (less washing up!).
- If they didn’t eat a healthy portion of their dinner and try one mouthful of everything, they didn’t get a treat – harsh I know and not always a rule I apply to myself.
- I never ever made more than one dinner for the family but they could choose the elements that they put on their plate.
- I didn’t criticise the kids for not eating something but they were encouraged to try new things (at least one bite) and they got a lot of praise when they did – I love an excuse to clap!
- I did this consistently and adapted meals to become more adventurous. Like I say though, it’s an ongoing project!
Tonight’s meal was whole wheat pasta with chicken, onion and peppers, served in a tomato, basil and mozzarella sauce. Everyone cleaned their plate which hand on heart, would have been impossible six months ago. Out of all of those ingredients my youngest would only have eaten plain pasta. It’s a miracle and I’m going to have a little clap 🙂
I ran my strategies by Dr Anna Robins, Senior Lecturer/ Researcher in Exercise, Physical Activity and Health at the University of Salford (and mother of two) to see what she would advise from a professional point of view. This is what she said.
“It is not uncommon for young children to go through ‘ faddy’ stages with regards to eating, especially when they learn that there is more to life than food. However, at the point at which your child says ‘ I don’t like…’ whatever it may be, the worst thing a parent can do is to simply remove any sight, smell and taste of that food again. It is crucial that children have a varied diet in order to meet their nutritional needs, and by continually reducing the types of food they will eat, this can not only lead to child and potentially adult neophobia (fear of new foods) but also the likelihood that they are deficient in some nutrients. It’s also incredibly embarrassing from a social point of view to have a child that is a fussy eater. Failing to put healthy eating and a varied diet high on the agenda early on in their life, will only come back to bite you as a parent very hard later on.
Jayne, you’ve done the right thing by thinking of ways in which to make eating interesting and giving your children some autonomy with regards to food choice, albeit within a covertly decided range of healthy foods. It is advised that a child will need to be exposed to a disliked food at least 8-10 times before preferences begin to shift favourably towards that food. This certainly does not mean force feeding your child with the disliked food, but instead thinking of ways in which to increase the consumption of that food and also introducing novel foods into their diet. It is worth knowing that besides ‘exposure’ increasing the chance of a disliked food to become a liked food, ‘social’ and ‘associative learning’ can also help. For example, if a child dislikes carrots yet a very good friend is seen to tuck into carrots when eating together, this can increase the likelihood of your child trying that food. At a young age, superhero’s and well liked adults (usually well known family members) eating important foods can also increase the chance of your child also trying these foods. Jayne, I see you’ve tried rewarding your children for eating required and healthy foods. This is good although it is not advisable to reward with treats (which may be less healthy) as the reward food is then seen as more positive than the access food. Positive adult behaviour can be sufficient in itself, but this needs to be very enthusiastic behavior, especially at the beginning – so try a gold sticker chart or something similar. Children love to be able to literally see the benefits of their good behaviour (eating in this instance) and if you have more than one child it is inevitable that the competition between siblings can actually be advantageous.
And yes, getting children to continue to eat as healthily as possible when outside of your reach is incredibly hard, which is why you have to lay the foundations down very early on. You will then find that as your children grow, they actually start to make informed healthy choices themselves and that is so rewarding to watch as a mother/parent. Well done, and carry on the good work! ” (Anna)
I’d like to thank Dr Anna Robins and The University of Salford for taking the time to contribute to this blog on ‘fussy little eaters’. We hope that’s its useful to other parents out there.