What makes a fussy eater and tips for parents
One of the biggest stressors for many parents, particularly those of toddlers and young children, is getting kids to eat what's provided at meal times. Fussy eating is a very common scenario, and often makes parents feel frustrated, worried and like they're not measuring up.
If you're in this scenario, don't despair! You're certainty not alone, and there are helpful things you can do to get your children eating more of the foods you want, on a regular basis.
What are some of the reasons behind Picky Eating?
Fussy eating is a term commonly used by parents, but the behaviours most parents are referring to are those of food rejection and/ or short attention spans, both of which are normal and relate to periods of cognitive and emotional development.
As frustrating as the behaviour can be, especially when wiping dinner from the floor and walls or the power struggle of trying to encourage a child to eat (and sit in one spot), it is comforting to know they are usually temporary.
In most cases these behaviours are unlikely to have an impact on your child's long-term growth. There are also ways in which we can guide our children through these periods of change and growth to make these common behaviours less stressful for everyone.
What do most fussy eaters have in common?
There are a few common themes with food rejection and fussiness at meal times. The most common reasons include tiredness at meal times, frequent snacking or losing tracks of a child's actual intake of food over a day, intense responses to sensory information (this is often seen in clinical picky eaters and may require a therapeutic approach), limited family meals and the use of technology or bribery at meal times.
Bribery is common meal strategy used by parents, with the most common being the phrase ' eat your dinner and then you can have this delicious desert'. We know from learning theories over time that briber or the promise of treat food may result in the treat food becoming more desirable and the food you are actually trying to encourage them to eat becoming less desirable, therefore resulting in even more challenging behaviours at meal times.
Technology is another common strategy as a way to encourage eating, but it is ideal to encourage technology-free meal times as often as possible. While using technology can give us a 'break' from the meal time struggles, frequent use at meal times may result in mindless eating, poor eating habits and poor health outcomes including obesity and negative body image.
Finally, unrealistic expectations at meal times is one of the most common reasons for meal time frustration and stress. Meal times with children are often imperfect and that is okay. There are ways we can support our little ones through periods of change and growth to make meal times feel less frustrating and stressful but also know you are not alone! Most of us experience these behaviours with our little one's at some stage.
Tips to encourage healthy eating.
The most successful and promising tip is to prioritise eating as a family. There are many evidence based learning theories that extend to meal times and social modelling/social learning is one of the most effective (and free!) tools available. The great news is that the health benefits of eating as a family can be seen as little as three family meals per week.
Set aside time to eat with you children as often as possible. Eat your vegetables, a variety of foods and model the relationship with food that you want your children to have, turn off the technology and use lots of praise.
You don't need to make meals worthy of posting on social media, nor spend a fortune on superfoods for kids. Here are a few realistic tips:
- Serve food on child-friendly serving dishes or plates
- Less may be more. It may be overwhelming for a child to be presented with a big plate of food, so start with a small portion and aim to make every bite count.
- Set the example. Children often try a new food if it is on your plate and not theirs.
- Make the plate colourful with different types of fruit and vegetables.
- Make meals fun and engaging by using sandwich cutters or novelty plates.
- Serve new foods with old favourites and encourage tastes without pressure. It can take a child 10-20 tastes before they accept a new food (that 1-3 weeks of consistently offering a new food!).
- Plan DIY meals such as homemade pizzas and encourage children to be a part of the meal creation.
Often, the imperfect moments create perfect moments for learning and growth! Talk about meal times, about how food makes us feel (the good AND the not-so good feelings) and help your children learn how to make food choices on their own as they become more independent.