A common question we hear is, ‘how do I get my fussy eater to eat healthy food?’ Let’s face it, it can be a challenge to feed our kids well these days, thanks to the processed food options and marketing that makes them irresistible to children. So if your child has fussy tendencies, it can become even tougher.
The good news is there are research-based strategies that can help you to feed your fussy eater good foods. So let’s look at 5 top tips to help with picky eating from Natural Super Kids whole foods chef (and qualified naturopath) Susan.
My child is a fussy eater. Is this normal?
Fussy eating is a normal part of development in younger kids. Between the ages of 2-6, kids are discovering a variety of new foods. They are putting everything into their mouths to try them as they create their own sense of independence around food.
For some, this can create a fear of new foods. But some of the things that we do as parents can actually turn a normal eater with some fear around food into a fussy eater. To read more about the habits that contribute to picky eating, click here.
If your child continues to limit their food choices at a later age, there might be some underlying causes to consider.
What contributes to fussy eating?
There are two main factors to consider when it comes to a child’s food preferences – genetics and environment.
Genetics can contribute to how a child experiences flavour. It can also make them more sensitive to bitter flavours.
The good news is if genetics are part of your child’s fussy eating, it will have less impact as they age. Over time, environmental factors that you can modify have a greater part to play than genetics.
The impact of environment starts in the uterus. The more a child is exposed to flavours throughout early life, the more likely they are to enjoy a variety of foods.
If you’re pregnant, the way that you eat can influence how your child will eat in the future. If you choose to breastfeed, flavours can come through breast milk and give your baby an acquired taste for whatever you consume. How your family interacts with food will play an important role, especially once your child moves onto solid foods.
There can also be some more complex contributing factors for kids who have extreme fussy eating tendencies. Picky eating is often associated with sensory issues, behavioural and learning difficulties, and neurodevelopmental conditions such as ADHD and autism. There may also be factors affecting digestion and appetite, such as gut health issues and nutrient deficiencies.
5 research-backed tips for feeding your fussy eater
Division of responsibilities
This approach to feeding was originally developed by a dietitian. Put simply, it means that as the parent, you’re responsible for what, where and when your child eats. That means you decide on the menu, that everyone sits at the table, and what time dinner is. As the child, they are responsible for if they choose to eat it and if so, how much they eat.
This takes the pressure off you as a parent, and gives them a greater sense of independence about food. It also sets up a foundation for the other tips.
Remove the pressure
Many of us were raised in the era of ‘eat your vegetables or you don’t get dessert’ and ‘you can’t leave the table until you finish’. So this can be a bit tricky to start with. But pressuring kids to eat food will usually have the opposite effect to what you actually want.
Another issue is that what is pressure to one child can be fine with another. Some parents encourage their kids to have a ‘polite bite’ of everything, which works for some, and is pressure for others.
Even non-food rewards like sticker charts can feel like pressure to sensitive kids. The research into food behaviours reflects this inconsistency. Some find that rewards are beneficial and encourage kids to try new things. Others find that it doesn’t create a good relationship with food in the long-term.
The goal for you as a parent is to create a food environment that is happy and connected. You also want to ensure other carers such as grandparents or childcare workers are consistent with this approach where possible. So if you know your child doesn’t respond well to certain types of food pressure, have a chat to anyone else who cares for them during food times.
When you look at the research, repeated exposure is the most effective method to help kids eat a wider variety of foods. Repeated exposure simply means putting a food in front of your child over and over again, even if they refuse it the first time.
Experts suggest anywhere from 5 to 100 times for repeated exposure to work. For most kids, it sits around 14-15 times before they will accept a food. So don’t give up – this is a long-term strategy.
Exposure doesn’t mean they have to eat it. Make sure they can interact with the food in different ways. They might lick it or put it in their mouth but then spit it out. Even smelling the food and feeling the texture can be a great way to expose them.
It also doesn’t mean they need to eat a full serve for it to be a success. For example, your child can have a sliver of a broccoli floret to try, or a few peas. Over time, they will adapt and eat a normal serving size. You might even use a learning plate or bowl where you child can try tiny little bits of each food.
Don’t save exposure for dinner time when kids are the most tired and fussy. You can get them to try small amounts when you’re chopping vegetables in the kitchen, or add the foods to lunch and snack times.
Model healthy food behaviours
Kids naturally parrot what their parents, siblings and other close adults do. So you want to make the most of this by modelling good behaviours around food. Like repeated exposure, this is a long-term strategy, but it helps to establish healthy eating habits and patterns.
A good way to do this is by eating meals together, family-style. Even if you can’t all sit down together every night, aim for at least 3 days a week. Or if you can’t, delegate it to someone else. Ask your child’s carer to sit and have a meal with them. You can also go for family picnics on the weekend. The goal is to ensure your child is eating with others, not alone.
Family-style eating is a restaurant term that means all of the food is in the middle, and everyone helps themselves. This feeds back into the division of responsibility, because your child can choose what they put on their plate. It creates a happy and healthy food environment for everyone.
Family-style is great for dinner options such as Mexican and salads. But most meals can be done family-style, even if you have to serve up one part of the dish that is a bit messier!
Get the kids involved
You want your kids to create a healthy relationship with food. Getting them involved in all aspects of food and eating can go a long way with this.
Find food-related activities to fit into your week, and get your kids involved with those. That might mean batching cooking on the weekend, going to the farmer’s markets or supermarket together, or even growing a veggie patch in the backyard.
If you need to, you can delegate some of this out. Encourage your child’s school to get involved with food and gardening programs. Book your kids in for cooking classes over school holidays. Ask the grandparents to take the kids out to visit a local farm, take them berry picking, or go down to the local market.
If you’ve been dealing with a fussy eater for a while, it can take time to see results. Don’t give up – keep exposing your kids to new and different foods using these tips. And remember to not be hard on yourself. Your aim is for your kids to be varied eaters, not perfect eaters.
Are you dealing with a fussy eater? Our Naturopath, Sarah can help you!