Working a lot with young children means we often come across fussy and faddy eaters. For many families it can cause a real problem and can make mealtimes a real battle ground. Health Care Professionals sometimes refer to fussy eating as a simple phase which children will grow out of. To some extent this is true as, it is a common phase and some children will merely pass through it by themselves. However, the length and the seriousness of this “phase” is often down to how it is dealt with by parents and carers.
Knowing how to cope with a fussy infant or toddler is essential in order to support parents through what can be a very difficult time in their child’s development. Appropriate advice for fussy eaters can also help parents to rest easy, knowing that their children are still eating a healthy and well balanced diet, full of all the nutrients essential for growth.
Here are SR Nutrition’s Top Tips to coping with fussy eaters:
Ensure a good mealtime routine – As with all nutrition advice, a good mealtime routine is key. This helps to ensure that children know when to expect meals and snacks throughout the day which, therefore, allows them to build up appropriate levels of hunger. Irregular eating patterns can result in children not recognising signals for hunger and can additionally result in children filling up on in-appropriate foods in-between meals. A regular feeding routine of around three main meals and two to three healthy snacks is recommended each day for children over one.
Eat meals together/practice role modelling – However your family traditionally eat, try as much as possible to eat together at mealtimes. Children learn to eat from their parents and siblings and so eating together can encourage children to eat more, be less fussy and to try different foods. If you have particular relations that your child see as role models it is a good idea to try and involve them in your family dinners on occasion to help encourage your little one to eat.
Encourage self-feeding – Children should be encouraged to start feeding themselves from around seven months of age. This can help to encourage eating and also help children to learn when they are full or when they want more food. It is also important that children are allowed to observe their parents feeding practices during mealtimes to they can learn more about the process of self-feeding.
Avoid grazing outside of the routine – Three meals and two to three healthy snacks per day is quite enough for children to keep them topped up on energy and nutrients. Therefore offering food outside of these times is likely to result in children not wanting or refusing the food on offer during mealtimes. Importantly, avoid the urge to offer milk or other snacks whenever children ask or cry for them and stick to your family routine. It is also important to remember that milk is still a food and will fill children up so be careful not to offer too much of this during the day.
Involve children in mealtime prep – From writing a shopping list to helping to buy the shopping to laying the table or preparing the food it is a good idea to get children involved at every stage. The more children are involved in the process of mealtimes the more likely they are to eat the food that they helped to pick out, prepare and serve.
Never offer alternatives – For some parents this is the most difficult advice to follow but it is also one of the most important tips for dealing with fussy eaters. When foods are refused and alternatives offered in their place this gives children the impression that the choice at mealtimes is their own and that as long as they continue to refuse foods, they will eventually get what they want. Offering alternatives may also mean that you are forever making different meals which increases waste and keeps you very busy around lunchtime!
Offer family foods – At around 10-12 months your little one should be eating the same meals as the rest of the family (albeit much smaller portions and as long as they are nice and healthy). Try whenever possible to eat the same foods as your children which will help to encourage them to eat to foods and meals that they are given.
Be persistent – Sometimes it can take children up to twenty times before they accept a certain food. Children who refuse a food initially may learn to enjoy it later on. If it is never offered, they won’t learn to like it and additionally, you can end up with them refusing a number of foods and having a very limited diet. So keep important to keep offering a variety of foods and try and combine meals with foods they like and foods they aren’t so keen on.
Always offer plenty of variety – The more foods you introduce your little ones too at a young age the more likely they are to eat a variety of foods as they get older. As soon as you introduce solids to your baby during weaning, try to offer plenty of different colours, textures and tastes to ensure early familiarity with a variety of foods.
Ignore unwanted behaviours – This is another tip that many parents find hard to follow. However, playing up at mealtimes can often be no more than a cry for attention. Ensure you do not give fussy eaters extra attention for the behaviours you want to stop and instead, focus your attention on the behaviour you want to see more often. Offer praise to other family members who eat well or if your fussy eater takes a spoonful then give them the attention they deserve. All too often we focus all our attention on the unwanted behaviour which actually encourages children to continue with their fussy behaviours.
Avoid distractions – It is important to make a distinction between mealtimes and play time by getting your little one to turn off the TV and put away all toys before eating. Mealtimes need to be about family and food and so, allowing children to continue playing is going to make them feel that food is simply an inconvenience to their fun. Many parents also try to feed children whilst in front of the television to encourage them to eat. However, this will make the fussy eating worse in the long run and children may start refusing food altogether. Sitting down to eat meals and making food and eating an important part of the day is essential to avoid longer term fussy eating.
Get the portion size right – Offering portions of food that are too big can be overwhelming for children and can put them off the meal all together. Ensure you offer “Me size Meals” to your little one and have a look at the portion sizes for toddlers handout on the Infant and Toddler Forum Website for more information.
Keep mealtimes to 20-30 minutes – Staring at the same foods for any longer than this is going to put children off food and mealtimes all together. After this time, it is unlikely that children are going to eat any more of the food so it is a good idea to take the meal away and offer it again later at another meal or snack time. Never force feed children and try not to make a big deal of them not eating the meal as again, this will draw more attention to your child and the unwanted behaviour.
Keep calm and carry on – Feeding a fussy child can be a stressful time but it is really important for parents to try and stay calm and not react. Try to stay in control of the situation and do not let your child take over and decide the mealtime rules. This will ensure that fussy eating IS no more than a phase in your child’s development.
Hopefully some of these tips will really work for you and your little one. Remember that fussy eating is really common and many other parents will be going through what you are going through so don’t be afraid to ask for advice.