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Do you have a fussy eater? These expert tips could help

Girl child baby food fussy eater

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Sometimes persuading a child to try a new food or even to eat foods you know they enjoy can be a battle. Temper tantrums, threats, sulking, even frustrated tears are common scenarios — and that’s just the parents.

Why do kids turn their noses up at (or throw bowls of) perfectly tempting tucker, and what can parents can do to encourage fussy little eaters? It seems there really is no clear-cut answer. But individual likes and dislikes, age and developmental milestones, and a parent’s own attitude to food and mealtimes have a significant impact. And, according to experts like Kate Di Prima, a dietitian and co-author of More Peas Please: Solutions for Fussy Eaters, picky eating habits are an issue that’s on the rise.

So is the increase in fussy eating habits the result of environmental factors like TV advertising? Busy lifestyles? A reliance on takeaway or quick-service restaurants? Or even increasing choice and variety of foods? “I can’t give you a definitive answer,” says Di Prima, “but the flow through my door of parents concerned about their child’s eating habits has increased substantially.”

The good news is, however, there are some positive ways parents can tackle the issue.

Growth spurts & dietary needs

Between birth and two years of age, most of a child’s energy is expended on growth, then from age two to five their growth slows. Accredited dietitian Milena Katz says this means your kid’s food (or energy) requirements during these later years may be less. “A one- or two-year-old might only eat marginally more than a four-year-old — an extra cheese stick or piece of fruit,” says Katz.

Maintaining an upbeat atmosphere can be a challenge if your child is secretly feeding the dog their broccoli, ramming peas up their nose or shrieking because you’ve put an unfamiliar vegetable in front of them.

It can be confusing understanding a young child’s appetite. In fact, Dr Julie Green, executive director of the website Raising Children Network, describes the early childhood palate as “volatile”. “Because of their stage of development, it’s not uncommon for a child to like a food one day and refuse it the next,” she says.

It’s also perfectly normal for kids to eat a lot one day and very little another.

The price of peace

Understandably, parents want harmonious mealtimes, but maintaining an upbeat atmosphere can be a challenge if your child is secretly feeding the dog their broccoli, ramming peas up their nose or shrieking because you’ve put an unfamiliar vegetable in front of them. And, as any parent knows, kids have short attention spans. Toddlers, in particular, will be happily enjoying their yogurt one minute, the next smearing it on the walls, just because it feels nice and squishy in their fingers.

The secret, it seems, is to not give your fussy little eater too much attention. If a child learns their tears or tantrums will be rewarded with attention, you may be inadvertently encouraging the behaviour.

Taming your fussy eater

Want your child to come to eat a wide variety of nutritious, tasty foods? Here are some ideas to help.

  • Try buffet style

To keep the peace at mealtimes, some parents fall into the habit of restricting the family’s meals to a handful of favourite things they know the kids will eat. Eve Reed, an accredited dietitian and author of several books on kids’ nutrition, says that’s not a good practice. “Rotating four or five dishes you know the children will eat not only restricts the parents’ enjoyment of food but also the child’s exposure to new foods and tastes,” she says.

Instead, provide a range of nutritious foods on the table, buffet style, so the family can serve themselves. Allowing a child to self-serve (with a bit of assistance from Mum or Dad if they aren’t old enough) can be empowering for fussy eaters. “My only proviso is there needs to be at least one food on the table you know the child will eat if they are hungry,” says Reed.

It’s equally important not to make a big deal about the meal you are eating. “Comments such as ‘just take a bite’, ‘this broccoli is yummy’ or ‘three more peas and you can have dessert’ are seen as pressure by the child,” she says.

  • Lead by example

If you go out for lunch or dinner, do you try new things or stick to tried and true favourites? To encourage your kids to step outside their culinary comfort zone, parents need to be seen doing the same. Let your child witness you sampling new foods and enjoying the different taste sensations.

  • Beat boring vegetables

Slice them, dice them, dress them up any way you like and some kids will still roll their eyes and lament that vegetables are boring! But, of course, they don’t have to be. Start your own vegie patch so the kids can grow and harvest their own vegetables. Then get your child on board to peel the vegies or arrange them in a salad. Experiment with different flavour combinations and try adding herbs, nuts or seeds to enhance flavours.

  • Experiment with temperature & texture

You might find your child turns their nose up at some foods because they simply don’t find the texture palatable. To tempt their tastebuds, instead of serving up limp cooked beans, offer crunchy raw ones or carrot sticks in place of diced, cooked carrot pieces.

Some children are also over-sensitive to hot and cold foods, just like adults. The temperature that people prefer to eat their food is an individual decision, so if your child won’t eat warm eggs, for example, try serving them at room temperature.

  • Make it look good

As humans, we eat with our eyes, too! So, if your child won’t eat orange sweet potato, maybe try the purple kind. But beware bright and vibrant food and bowl colours if you are looking to create peaceful mealtimes. Red is an emotionally intense colour and, while it can stimulate the appetite (hence its use in fast-food restaurants), it can also over-stimulate fussy eaters. In contrast, blue and green create a sense of serenity and calm.

Researchers at the Cornel Food and Brand Lab in the US have shown the bigger the bowl, the more you’ll eat, so cute kiddie-sized themed bowls, where you can only fit a morsel of food, won’t always encourage a fussy eater to tuck into their meal.

Quick, hide the green beans!

For parents at their wits end who want to encourage their kids to eat healthy foods, some resort to trickery, stealthily adding zucchini to pancakes or slipping finely chopped broccoli into chocolate cupcakes. Is camouflaging vegies a good idea? According to the experts, it’s not a big issue if you grate a few vegetables into bolognaise sauce, for example; but making a habit of hiding foods children won’t try defeats the purpose of introducing them to new foods, flavours and textures.

Hunger strike!

So what if your cheerful little cherub clamps their choppers together and flat out refuses to eat dinner? Kids who continually snack during the day may simply not be hungry at mealtimes. A nibble on a cracker or two, a few apple slices or a bite or two of a cheese stick can all add up. If your child is grazing all day, Reed’s advice is to stick to mealtimes only. “Children thrive on structured mealtimes — including breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner,” she says. “Between-meal snacks shouldn’t be offered at whim.”

But it tastes yuck!

Sound familiar? After one taste some kids won’t try a certain food again, while others simply refuse to try new foods, full stop. Extreme fussy eating is also called being a neophobic eater, which translates in lay terms to a fear of trying new foods. For the child who says they don’t like a particular food, but they’ve never laid eyes on it before, here’s a simple way to overcome the problem.

Let them see it, admire its colour, feel its lumps and bumps or smooth shiny surface, and even play with it, so the child becomes familiar with its name, smell, shape, and colour.

Then try this simple exercise: it all begins with one little pea.

  • Day 1. Touch it (the child feels the smoothness of it, and sees it rolling around).
  • Day 2. Kiss it (the child smells it and a small amount of residue is left on their lips).
  • Day 3. Lick it or hold it in the front teeth.
  • Day 4. Put it in your mouth (the child places it near their back teeth and chews).

If you’ve offered a food that is constantly refused, try again a few months later — you might find that next time around your child not only cleans his plate but he’s asking for seconds.

“The reality is it can take 10 to 15 times to recognise a particular food as a ‘normal’ food, whereas parents tend to give up after two or three presentations,” says Di Prima.

Sugar addiction

There is nothing sweet about meltdowns and mood swings, and excess sugar consumption can be the culprit. It’s no secret that processed foods are often laden with the stuff, but sugar is also present in seemingly innocuous foods. For example, did you know some tinned tuna, tomato sauces and yogurts can actually be high in sugar? So why do kids love sugar so much? Milena Katz says foods that aren’t sweet to the taste might be initially rejected by babies and young children because of how humans have developed biologically. “If you look at our evolutionary origins, if it tasted bitter, it was more likely to be poisonous,” she says.

Your tenacity will eventually pay off when trying to introduce new, more savoury foods — so keep at it! And, if you do buy packaged products, always check food labels. If your children are old enough, encourage them to read them, too.

Is there something more going on?

If your child continually refuses food, is underweight, becoming lethargic, or you’re concerned, seek the advice of a paediatrician.

Tasty tips from the experts

  • Milena Katz. Don’t use treats as a reward: for example, eat your beans and you can watch your favourite TV program. Forcing a child to eat for the wrong reasons teaches them to ignore their body’s hunger cues and increases the risk of weight issues.
  • Kate Di Prima. If a child refuses a meal, remove it. If they’re still hungry, return the reheated meal and don’t offer anything else or a milk drink, or the child learns they’ll be rewarded for their refusal.
  • Eve Reed. Good mealtime habits start early and uppermost is setting the scene with no distractions. No TV, iPhone or iPad, and it’s good if one or both parents eat with the children.
  • Julie Green. You may be able to get the child interested in food by letting them help with shopping or meal preparation — even young toddlers can help to stir a cake. It’s empowering, they feel a part of the family activity and they get a sense of satisfaction if they complete a task.

Practice the three Ps

The co-authors of Feeding Fussy Kids, Antonia Kidman and Julie Maree Wood, say to remember the three Ps: persistence, positivity and praise. To help kids make progress, you need to be persistent, always maintain a positive vibe around food and eating, and praise even the smallest step forward or change in attitude.

The great white diet

Dietitian Kate Di Prima says there’s a little-known connection between poor appetite, fussy eating habits and constipation. “Picky eaters can sometimes avoid whole food groups — often fruits and vegetables which contain insoluble and soluble fibre, which means their bowels start decreasing in movement,” she says.

Many young children subsist on a diet Di Prima has coined “the great white diet”, consisting of bland, easy-to-chew foods. When Di Prima questions parents, she says many do have a profound aha moment. “They’ll say, ‘Oh my gosh, yes, they eat cheese, pasta, milk, white bread, rice cakes,’” she says.

If that’s the case, introduce more fruit and vegetables slowly to your child’s diet. “For example, if they’re eating a cream cheese sandwich, mash some cannellini and butterbeans [into it],” she suggests.

There are also other dangers associated with a smooth, fibre-free diet. Di Prima says a child doesn’t develop their jaw muscles as they should. “There is a strong relationship between chewing, swallowing and learning to talk,” she says.


Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker is an award-winning freelance journalist who is a passionate advocate of natural health and wellness. She writes for lifestyle and healthy-living magazines across Australia and internationally.