One of the biggest challenges many parents face is having a picky eater in the family. It’s also more common than you think. Families, who’ve reached the end of their tether, and simply want advice to get their children eating anything other than chips and peas, contact me on a regular basis to help with toddler eating habits!
But when it comes to advice for picky eaters, the first principle is this:
As soon as you start introducing solid foods (at around 6 months, some may be ready a little earlier) ensure you introduce a wide variety of foods. Children are born with an innate preference for sweet foods, yes, but the whole point in ‘weaning’ is to introduce them to new foods and tastes they are NOT familiar with and that they don’t like by default.
Familiarisation with food
This is where vegetables come in. Most children readily accept fruits, but they need to learn to like vegetables. This is because we have inbuilt, evolutionary senses that make us cautious of ‘bitter’ or even non-sweet tasting foods. It’s a survival mechanism that encourages us to initially reject foods until we learn they are safe to eat.
During weaning, and even throughout their toddler years, building what we call ‘familiarisation’ with foods is so important. Research, time and again, shows that babies and children learn to like what is familiar to them, so if they reject broccoli and are never again offered it, they won’t EVER learn to like it and you may be restricting their diets.
Avoid giving them discretionary or ‘junk’ foods
In today’s society we also have access to A LOT of less healthy food options. By that I mean processed foods that contain added sugar, salt and fats, but little of anything of nutritional value. Unfortunately this kind of food has become so normal that it’s passed down onto our children too. A concept that makes me very sad. As adults, we know that a bag of crisps isn’t very good for us, and we know that, if we eat them regularly, we’re likely to gain weight and have a diet high in salt and fat. Regardless, crisps are one of the top foods offered to young children today.
However, these types of foods taste good, really good. They are designed that way – to make us enjoy them and want more – from the crunch when you put them in your mouth, to the feeling when it’s on your tongue, and even the taste they leave after they are all gone. So if we start offering these foods to children, who don’t know any better about their health, of course they will start rejecting other, healthier (and quite simply, plainer) foods. This is why most health professionals recommend not offering foods with added salt and sugar before 1 year of age, and keeping these foods to a minimum thereafter. It allows children to become familiar – and actually quite enjoy – foods that are good for them and that provide their bodies with nutrients to grow and develop well.
See my article which highlights this further – the REAL problem with our food
Avoid offering alternatives
This brings me on to another point about offering alternatives. I’ve worked with parents who make separate meals for everyone in the family or even those who create up to 4 different meals for a child at dinnertime, only to have each and every one rejected. This isn’t good for your child, for a parent’s sanity, or for the environment (a LOT of food waste!). The best thing to do with a fussy eater toddler, when they are old enough, is to offer a choice between one or two HEALTHY options e.g. do you want Weetabix or Porridge? Shepherd’s Pie or Spaghetti Bolognese? That way, you’re allowing them some independence whilst still being in control of the food they are eating.
If a meal is still refused it’s best to take it away, without much comment and pop it in the fridge for later. Offering alternatives teaches children one thing – that they can control the food they eat, and as soon as they catch wind of this you will find that they exploit it to the maximum.
Children won’t starve themselves
What most parents are afraid of is their children ‘going hungry’. I often ask parents I work with ‘what happens if you yourself skip a meal? Or even two?’ Ultimately it makes you hungrier for the next meal and more likely to eat it.
It’s even better if you have a good routine around meals and perhaps offer a healthy snack somewhere during the day, too. This just means that your little one won’t ever have to go too long without some fuel.
Of course some children may refuse a few meals in a row. If this happens then it’s a good idea to offer something healthy at your usual mealtime, which you know they will eat.
Milk is NOT enough!!!
One last point here is to avoid replacing meals with milk. I would say possibly the primary mistake made by most families who have a fussy child is over reliance on milk because, well ‘at least they are getting something’. Actually, this is not a good alternative. By the age of around 1, children should be drinking no more than around 360-400mls of milk per day (gradually reducing over time from around 500-600mls per day during weaning). Milk doesn’t have enough of the nutrients that children need, and offering too much can lead to iron deficiency and obesity.
Milk is essentially a food, and if children are filling up on this they are not going to be hungry for meals and solid foods, which is what should make up the majority of their calories by the age of one. This is especially true of night feeds. Many parents offer milk during the night after the first year and then wonder why they weren’t hungry at breakfast!
Next on my list for dealing with picky eater toddlers is this:
This is one of the most important factors to getting your little one to eat healthy foods. If your diet consists of chips and fried chicken, your children will soon pick up on that and want the same themselves. I actually worked with a family who were trying everything to get their toddler to eat some vegetables. After delving into the case a little more, it transpired that mum and dad were on the sofa with a bucket of chicken in front of the TV, whilst trying in vain to keep their toddler at the table eating a plate of broccoli – not going to happen!
So even if it means changing some of your eating habits or even faking it a little, it’s important that your child has an opportunity to see you eating and enjoying a healthy diet. Try to eat together as much as possible and if you struggle with healthy foods try to involve other family members, who you know eat well – brothers, sisters, grandparents or even your little one’s friends. Role models can have a huge influence on baby and toddler eating habits.
Avoid using distractions
Many parents also try and use distractions such as televisions, toys or games to get their children to eat something unconsciously. Again this simply teaches your children that food is bad and that eating is something we need to ‘be over and done with’ as quickly as possible. It might make feeding slightly easier in that moment, but often you’ll find that you are setting yourself up for more difficulties as they get older and as they experience other circumstances – such as visiting friends and family, eating together and even when they are at nursery.
Make mealtimes fun
Instead try to make mealtimes enjoyable by starting with a little quiz about food or talking about your child’s day. You could use colourful tablecloths and talk about the importance of food, mealtimes and eating together. Whatever you do, avoid allowing mealtimes to become a battle, as so many parents I know dread this time of day with a fussy toddler. If they refuse to eat their food ignore it. Clear the food away after 20 minutes or so (or after you’ve finished your meal) and try to not make any negative comments.
Don’t give all your attention to the fussy eater
In my experience, any attention given to food refusal simply encourages it. What you do need to focus attention on is when people around the table (including brothers, fathers and even you) are eating well and enjoying their food. Offer plenty of praise for good eating behaviour e.g. ‘oh, well done daddy, you’ve eaten ALL your broccoli’ and talk about what aspects of the meal you enjoyed. It might sound silly, and it may take time but your little one will finally realise that they get more attention from eating well than they do from being fussy!
Avoid forcing or coaxing your child into eating. Again it can establish a negative relationship with food and it also can be dangerous. At a young age children are excellent at knowing when they are hungry and when they are full. If we override these signals, they are likely to have a lot less of an idea about their appetite as they get older.
Offer Me-sized portions
It’s also a good idea to offer small portions, and allow children to go for seconds if they are still hungry. Big portions can be overwhelming, and I’ve often seen families offer toddlers meals that are the same size as mum and dad’s plate! Children should have much smaller portions than their parents – offering a mound of broccoli to a child who is not confident or familiar with a variety of foods, is only going to put them off. Start small and allow more room for seconds, but remember to try and listen to their appetite cues.
Last, but not least, if all else fails a star chart can be very useful. It’s a great way of recognising achievement when it comes to food and can make mealtimes fun. You could offer a star for every new vegetable eaten or when your little one tastes a food they have previously rejected.
This is a very detailed take on my ‘top tips for dealing with fussy eaters’. I’ve written some smaller, simpler articles on this before, but the above is for those who want a more comprehensive understanding of how to deal with toddler eating problems.
Below is a quick reference list for those ideas discussed above.
Top tips for dealing with picky eaters – a summary
- Offer a variety early on
- Keep offering foods even if at first rejected
- Avoid offering today’s ‘junk’ foods regularly
- Give children a choice between healthy option A and healthy option B
- Avoid offering alternatives if meals are refused
- Stick to no more than around 360mls of milk after 1 year of age
- Role model healthy eating as much as possible
- Try and sit together to eat
- Avoid distractions at mealtimes
- Make mealtimes fun
- Ignore food refusal
- Praise good food behaviour
- Avoid force feeding
- Offer small portions and allow seconds
- Give a star chart a go!