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If you’re the parent of a fussy eater (and most parents I know are, including me), then chances are you’ve tried lots of different ways to get your child to eat different foods.
Maybe you started off quite patiently, being very encouraging and trying a variety of tactics to make mealtimes fun. Several months on, maybe nothing has worked, you’re anxious your child isn’t getting all the daily nutrients he or she needs, and mealtimes have become a constant battleground, with tears and tantrums and stress.
Worse, you have a friend whose child seems to eat everything, from kale to lasagne to salmon and everything in between. At that point we usually ask ourselves “What am I doing wrong?”
Feeding our children is such an emotive issue; it’s at the very heart of who we are: nurturers, providers, the people whose job it is to keep our children safe and to help them grow up happy and healthy. It’s not difficult to see why then, when our children refuse to eat the food we cook for them, we become anxious and mealtimes become a source of dread. Worse, we feel like failures. I know I did.
The first thing to understand is that a period of rejecting foods is a completely natural phase in a child’s development, just like learning to walk. Reluctance to try new foods is called food neophobia, typically peaking at around two years of age, but arising anywhere up to the age of six. Not every child will experience neophobia, but like most phases in a child’s development, it usually passes on its own with time and patience on the part of the parent.
However, there is a difference between our children learning to walk, and our children learning to eat. And that’s our own reaction, as parents. When our children learn to walk, we accept that they will fall down many many times before they get the hang of it. We don’t automatically assume the worst: that they’ll never walk and are doomed to spend their adult life crawling everywhere.
When it comes to our children rejecting certain foods though, we seem to automatically panic, not unreasonably: if our children don’t eat, we worry they will get sick. So we label our children fussy eaters and the focus immediately becomes all about what they will and will not eat, the stress at mealtimes goes up and a child, feeling the pressure of mum’s or dad’s worried gaze, reacts badly.
Before you get to that phase, or if you’re already in it, here are 5 top tips to help you deal with fussy eating and stay sane in the process.
Research shows that it can take between 15 to 20 times of offering a new food before a child will taste it. However, in most cases, parents usually give up offering a new food around the fifth attempt. Keep offering those new foods even if your child rejects them at first. For more on that research and a handy app for helping you keep track of how often you offer a food, take a look at the Child Feeding Guide website. (www.childfeedingguide.co.uk)
You don’t have to eat it
Six little words that make all the difference. That’s according to the hundreds of parents who’ve tried this technique by renowned dietician Ellyn Satter.
Satter explains that as a parent it’s your responsibility to buy, cook and serve nutritious meals for your family, but it’s your child’s responsibility to decide if, what and how much of what you’ve cooked they’ll eat. It’s something she calls the “division of responsibility” and it’s been met by lots of positive feedback from long-suffering parents who call it nothing short of a miracle.
The idea is simple: when met with disgusted looks or “I hate (fill in the blanks)” at mealtimes, she proposes responding with “You don’t have to eat it”. You then turn your attention back to what you’re eating and carry on regardless.
This is not a quick fix and takes some getting used to but in my own experience with my children this has been the rule that’s changed everything. It may go against everything you’ve been taught by your parents but Satter says she’s found that once the pressure to eat food is removed, children become naturally more curious and adventurous and are more likely to eat healthily in the long run. You can find out more on Ellyn Satter’s website (www.ellynsatterinstitute.org)
Experiment with little tasting sessions, outside of mealtimes, with your child. Make it fun and turn it into a game. Serve very tiny portions of different foods and encourage your child to try them. Reward them with stars for every new food they try and if your child has siblings turn it into a family competition.
If your child is eating a very limited diet that is nutritionally poor, then a technique called Plate A, Plate B is a very effective way of introducing new foods in a calm and non-pressured way. Devised by Dr Keith Williams from Penn State Hershey Medical Centre, the Plate A, Plate B technique involves, as the name suggests, two plates; Plate A has very tiny pea-sized portions of foods a child hasn’t tried before; Plate B has spoon-sized portions of highly-preferable foods i.e. foods your child loves. The concept is simple: at any mealtime, your child takes a bite from Plate A, and then a bite from Plate B.
This technique is a good one to replace that old chestnut: “If you don’t eat your dinner, then you won’t have any dessert” or making your child stay at the table until they’ve finished their food. Neither of those techniques works very effectively.
Plate A, Plate B was used successfully on a 16 year old autistic boy who, prior to the experiment only ate 10 foods. Over a period of time Dr Williams was able to increase the number of different foods he ate to 24.
Get Your Kids Involved
Research has shown that when children are involved in the meals they eat they are more likely to eat what’s served and try new foods.
There are many ways you can get your children involved in mealtimes. Have them grow their own vegetables, even if it’s just a tiny tray of salad cress on the windowsill. Children feel incredibly proud when they grow something they can actually eat.
Sit with them and go through recipe books together and get them to choose one or two meals they’d really like you to cook. This worked for me when I got tired of hearing my children tell me that I “never cook anything nice”. If they choose their own recipes, they’re less likely to complain about it when you make it.
Have them come shopping with you and encourage them to choose one or two different kinds of vegetables or ingredients they might otherwise not eat.
Kids love cooking and there’s no better skill you can teach them at home. Friends of mine have their children cook a meal every Friday. The kids get to choose what they’re cooking and do it all themselves. If your children are not quite ready for that, start small with easy recipes like how to boil an egg or make spaghetti. If they cook a meal themselves they are more likely to eat it.
And lastly, stay calm
It may be hard to do but try not to take your child’s refusal to eat what you’ve given them personally. It’s not personal, it’s just a phase that in most cases will disappear on its own. The next time your child refuses to eat something you’re feeding them, count to ten, leave the room, remember you cannot force your child to eat and by doing so, you’re not doing them any favours.
When it gets to be a concern:
If your child’s eating habits have become a real cause for concern, there are many good resources online that can help, some of which I have listed above. The Food Refusal Service is a practise run by clinical psychologists who offer courses and events around the UK for parents of children who are difficult to feed. It also offers therapy sessions at its Birmingham centre. www.foodrefusal.co.uk