A guide for parents: Fussy eating!

As a Dietitian I know the importance of a varied balanced diet. A balanced variety of food in the diet ensures that we all have a healthy lifestyle. When it comes to teaching your children about healthy eating it may sometimes be easier to swim through treacle! As a mum of two children I have experienced the frustration of cooking a meal only to have it sneered at and pushed away with a firm “yuk”!

Our daily diet choices start with not our tummies but our eyes, brains and taste buds. The key thing to remember is that it is perfectly normal for children to refuse to eat or even taste a new food. This doesn’t mean that your child is a fussy eater and it does not mean they do not like this food and thus never to be tried again. Eating new foods has to be learned and the only way to learn something is repetition. Most of our eating behaviours are learned from our childhood and we learn the most in the first six years of our lives. It therefore makes sense to offer the most variety at this age range to ensure that our children follow a varied diet when they reach adulthood. The following 9 tips below should help to overcome fussy eating.

1.      Food should be fun!

Let’s not be too serious when it comes to mealtimes. Mealtimes are often the only social aspect of the family to come together all at the same time. Make meals fun for the family, introduce your kids to cooking as soon as possible, make cup cakes, let them put bread in the toaster, let them pack their own lunch, let them put their own toppings on a pizza base, make smiley faces out of their meals or even a scene e.g. broccoli as trees, mashed potato as snow and fish fingers as benches.

2.      Understand and accept that children’s tastes change regularly.

Again, it is completely normal that your child will refuse to try a new piece of food.  It can take up to 15 – 20 tastes of a new food for our brains to adapt to the taste. Due to this evidence, it is only right to keep offering a variety of meals to your kids on a weekly basis. If you are introducing a new meal at dinner here are some steps to help you deal with the initial “yuk”. Also remember foods that they liked last week they may dislike this week.

  • Explain beforehand what they are having for dinner, tell them what it is called and ask if they want to help prepare it.

  • Put the new meal in front of them with something familiar with it i.e. a favourite vegetable or a favourite sauce.

  • Try and eat with them so that they can see you eating the new meal.

  • Enjoy your meal whilst talking to the kids. I know it can be difficult, but try to ignore any protests.

  • If they do try their food, say how pleased you are with them for trying the food and praise them lots.

  • If they do not like the food (which is most likely as this is their first taste) simply say “Ok that’s fine” and either let them leave the table or provide a pudding once everyone else has finished, if they are hungry later there is always supper.

    3.       Stay calm

Do not make mealtimes a battlefield! No amount of cajoling bribing and persuading will make a child eat if they do not want to. Life with children can be demanding at times, thus pick your battles well as this is one battle you cannot win. Think about being in a restaurant and the waiter comes over and says “Come on just another mouthful, please!” Evidence has shown that these sentences can often make the situation worse. If you find you are getting upset or frustrated over mealtimes leave the room for a minute to calm down.

4.      Snacks

Too many snacks in-between meals will ensure that your children will not eat their dinner, even if it is their favourite. When our children start at early years in school, for snacks they have either fruit or vegetables and a choice of water or milk. Fruit or vegetables are the best snacks to have due to the vitamins and minerals contained in them. For health benefits we are aiming for 5 portions daily of fruit and vegetables. For under 5s, a ‘portion’ is about the same size as their hand. By introducing this routine early on in schools and at home ensures that our kids carry this on in later life. Try to keep the high kcal food snacks such as biscuits, sweets and chocolate for the weekends and preferably after a meal so that it does not spoil their appetite.

What is a portion of fruit and vegetables?

  • A handful of grapes               

  • 1 carrot cut into sticks           

  • a handful of cherry tomatoes  

  • Half a tin of fruit salad                      

  • 2 little oranges/ plums/ kiwi fruit                               

  • 1 banana or apple or pear            

  • A small carton of fresh juice from concentrate

5.         You eating makes them eat

It goes without saying that your children will copy you and will always want what you have to eat. Ensure that you are following a varied balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables, base your meals on starchy foods i.e. pasta, bread, potatoes, rice. Choose low fat dairy (semi skimmed milk after two years of age, other low fat products and skimmed milk after five years of age) and protein foods and keep high calorie foods as occasional treats. Try if possible to eat together at least once a week as a family. If you as a parent would say that you are a fussy eater, now is your chance to get rid of this label. Show your children that you are willing to try new foods too, fussy eating as a child doesn’t have to follow you into adulthood.

6.      Establish a routine at mealtimes

Get a weekly menu written down in the kitchen on a board. Use up what is in your fridge or freezer with meal planning. Food prices have increased by as much as 30% in the last two years, having a weekly meal plan provides variety, is more cost effective and less of a panic of “What can we eat?” Ask your kids to help with the cooking, get them to lay the table, wash their hands, get water etc.

7.      Always remember to start something that you want to continue

If you start to offer a different meal to your children because they do not like a food, you have started something which will continue for as long as you allow it to.  If you want your children to have a varied diet then continue to offer a variety of meals to all of the family.

8.      Try not to use food as a reward

Using high calorie foods such as chocolate, sweets, biscuits, and crisps as a reward can lead to health problems in later life. The risk of these foods as rewards can lead to increased dental caries and obesity, which carries with it other serious health problems. It also makes you look at food as good and bad, thus if you were rewarded with chocolate as a child, you are going to continue to reward yourself with chocolate as an adult.  This rewarding system often stems from our own parents, and from their parents who were food rationed after the Second World War nearly seventy years ago! These old fashioned beliefs have no place in today’s modern society of food availability, as you can buy any food you want 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Alternative rewards are stickers, an extra story, a visit to the park or even a visit to the pound shop!

9.      Eat up regularly

As an average for children you are aiming for three meals a day, breakfast, lunch and dinner- two being light and one being a hot meal with a pudding, perhaps also 2 snacks in-between and possibly a supper, especially if they are involved in after school sport clubs. Resist the temptation to think that they are going to be starving if they haven’t eaten anything at the mealtime. A child has a unique ability to recognise when they are full, when we get to adults and have larger meals we can quickly learn to forget what our stomach and brain are trying desperately to tell us. It is not what your child eats over the course of a day that contributes to their health; it is fifty two weeks of the year that counts. If your child doesn’t want much of their dinner, they can always have something at supper for instance, or they may make up their calories at breakfast the next day. Remember there is no such thing as healthy and unhealthy foods; however there are unhealthy and healthy diets.

Many thanks to Kate Harrod-Wilde for her contribution to this article.  Kate is a Paediatric Dietitian who has worked alongside children and families spanning 20 years.