“I’ve got a fussy eater and it’s really hard!” So you’ve been through the stage or are going through the stage where children can be described as fussy, mealtimes are a stress and you think your child “won’t eat anything”. The good news is the rules don’t change. You can get the power back so that mealtimes can be a blissful and beautiful time for you and the family! Read on…
Fussy, picky or erratic eating is normal – Stand your ground!
Your job is to only provide the food, so let them do the job of eating it. There is nothing else you can do after you’ve served it up. Getting used to this idea will make feeding much less stressful for both you and your child. Remember you can’t make them eat or like something, you can just offer it up.
Eating new foods is a skill that children learn gradually. A lot of learning to eat new foods looks like food rejection. You may not recognise the improvement, children have a way of sneaking up on a food and learning to like it.
Food companies are very good at telling us to buy things that our children will definitely eat. We set the menu, they don’t need different foods to us.
Sweet foods and children
Children often take to fruits and food in the breads/cereals group more easily than meats and vegetables. This just means a little more patience is required with meats and vegetables. Don’t just go with the foods they’ll eat. By just providing foods you know they’ll eat, they’re starting to set the menu already. You’re letting the least capable person be in charge of nutrition. Providing another meal if they don’t eat what you’ve served says “I don’t expect you to grow up and learn to eat new foods.”
Your child could be a supertaster
Some of us and our children have much more sensitive taste buds. These people are called supertasters. This can mean that new foods taste a lot stronger and may take longer to get used to. Often we’ll hear stories how one child was great with food and the other is a real fussy eater.
The good news is that they’re no more likely to have a limited diet than no super-taster children if they’re given the opportunities to get used to new foods. Super-tasters learn to enjoy strong flavoured foods as long as parents have a bit more patience and provide a few more exposures to the food in a ‘no pressure environment’, as we know it’s their job to decide if they want to eat or not.
Why children can be cautious of new foods
It’s natural for children to be cautious with new foods and not accept them straight away. This is thought to be a response we’ve inherited from our food foraging ancestors.
Bitterness in foods and strong flavours may have indicated that the food was not safe to eat, either poisonous or had gone off.
Some of the characteristics of foods can make children wary, i.e. strong smells, bitter tastes of vegetables and meat or the look of foods. Being wary of new foods is a survival instinct, it’s good that our kids are a bit cautious.
How to help children learn to try new foods
Your tool is the “neutral exposure”
What’s this? Simply offering your infant a food without any pressure or an expectation to eat it. Just adding it to meals nothing else. What have you heard? Offer it 10 – 30 times before they’ll take it? Yep, anywhere within that range depending on your child. Just keep in mind that lots of parents aren’t patient enough. The average amount of neutral exposures given to children is three before parents decide to leave a food out of a child’s diet. Repeated neutral exposures is how infants and children learn to eat new food.
In our society vegetables are considered to be difficult and this is reflected in less than 5% of adults eating the vegetables they need. Most of us have learned to eat vegetables under pressure. Its no wonder we don’t eat enough of them as adults!
Provide familiar and new foods together
Include new foods with familiar foods that have already been accepted and your child enjoys. This will take the pressure off and give them an ‘out’. It reassures your child they can eat something, making them feel braver about considering tasting and perhaps even eating the new food. We learn to eat unfamiliar food when we see it again and again.
Prepare in differently
There are a lot of things about a food they might not like first up. It could be the colour, textures or flavour. Consider how it’s served i.e. cut or arranged. Try to combine the food with another food or sauce that may soften the flavour. Tone down strong flavours with, sauces, bread crumbs, herbs and spices. Think how you like your food and consider it when preparing your child’s food.
Embrace mess and play
Before your child puts a food in their mouth and swallows it they may need time to get to know it. That means playing with it, scrunching it, bashing and maybe if they are musically inclined playing drums with it. This is all very important when getting to know food.
Take the pressure off yourself
One thing we often hear from parents who are stressed out about their infants’ feeding is that they’re fussy eaters. When asked more questions we find that they’re doing OK. The child is eating something from all the food groups and maybe a few things within each of the food groups. Keep your cool and remember the rule… You provide and then they decide. Any food learned to eat under pressure will not be food that will be liked or eaten long term!