Confidently Coaching Fussy Eaters
Catherine Pohl (Guest Nutritionist)
It seems like such an easy topic, doesn’t it? Feeding children. Yet when you start to do it or even think about how to do it, it suddenly becomes much more complicated. There is SO MUCH advice out there on how best to wean and what foods are important, and which could be dangerous and others that should be limited… and then just when we think we have a grasp of it… they won’t eat it!
This blog won’t focus on weaning, that’s a whole blog in itself. What I wanted to share with this blog is my top 10 nutritionist / mum perspectives on feeding children and tackling those fussy eating stages that invariable crop up for everyone:
1. Be sure that your fussy eater doesn’t have any underlying physical or psychological issues.
If you suspect they have, please seek the advice of a professional before continuing. Physical issues could be things like developmental issues that mean they are struggling to chew or swallow, or they could be digestive issues that mean it’s really uncomfortable to eat.
Some people are also what’s known as “super-tasters, which means flavours are just extra strong to them (or the opposite, they taste very little at all, making food boring).
Psychological issues would be things like having previously had a bad reaction to a food (tummy pain etc) that makes it scary to try that or other new foods again.
Please follow your intuition here if you think there could be something else at play, and get things checked out even if just for peace of mind.
2. Before proceeding with any of the following, please also remember that this is a long game.
It’s not about that single meal, it’s about raising healthy eaters for life, and that takes time and patience but will absolutely pay off.
When things get stressful at mealtimes, the worst thing we can actually do is try to force things – children that are forced to eat certain foods will more likely rebel when they are older, and we don’t want to have to tackle fussy eating in teens if we can avoid it!
We want our children to enjoy the experience of eating first and foremost, so if it’s not going well, back off, make the meal as enjoyable an experience as possible, and try again the next time.
3. The Jar Game!
If stress at mealtimes is something you are already struggling with, grab some small slips of paper and a jar. On each of the paper slips, write down a prompt to use – a funny song you can sing that you know will make your child laugh, a game that can be played sitting at the table like hiding something under cups, or a fun or silly question depending on their age eg. “would you rather be an elephant or a mouse?”, or “what was the funniest thing you saw today?”.
Now when a mealtime starts to get stressful and you can’t think of anything fun to break the tension, there is something ready made to just grab - the aim of course is to get them to talk and laugh and just relax while they are eating.
4. Eat together with your children whenever you can, and/or organise situations where your child can eat with other children.
It’s amazing how many parents tell me that their child will eat everything at school or nursery, but not at home, and even now my 8-year-old will eat far more different things with friends or in a restaurant than he will at home.
Once the weaning stage is finished, there are very few exceptions to what our children can eat to what we eat (the main usually being salt and sugar, which, let’s face it, aren’t that great for us either!) so if you can have family meals at least a few times a week, this can be really helpful.
5. Don’t try new foods when your child is really hungry.
If your child is really averse to new foods (or healthy foods), consider making a game from them that you play mid-morning or mid-afternoon, well away from meal times.
This could be as simple as look at and holding new vegetables, building up to taking a lick or taste of it when they feel comfortable.
Have them “feed” their toys with the new food, or feed you. Allow them to feel really safe with it and with time their curiosity will likely peak and they will be ready to try it.
6. Get them involved with preparing meals.
Cooking together can be another great way to help familiarise your child with new foods, as can growing them (some simple cress on the windowsill is a great start), or visiting a local farm so your child can pick their own.
This also gives you the opportunity to discuss food in a way that has no pressure – ask them what they would like, what it is they don’t like about certain things, it’s all great education for them and great info for you.
7. Combine new foods and flavours that have previously been rejected with familiar and accepted foods.
A whole plate full of new foods can be scary, so make sure that there is something familiar that they like there as well. Often fussy like these things separated as well, so that the new flavours don’t touch the ones they like.
This is a great technique to remove the pressure of trying and eating new foods. Pop all the foods on the table so that everyone can serve themselves. I love doing this with meals like tacos but it also works well with a roast dinner too.
Or, why not make your own pizzas where everyone adds their own toppings from an available selection? Or make your own smoothie where they can choose the fruits and other ingredients that go in?
9. Avoid the bribes.
This is such a tricky area, but actually when we bribe our children with eg. desserts when they have eaten their meal, this actually just reinforces the notion that the dessert is “yummy” and the meal is “yucky”, ie something they have to do to get to the good stuff.
If a dessert has been prepared, I also would also serve it even if the meal hasn’t been eaten – we want to show that all foods are equally valuable. I wouldn’t however serve dessert everyday as standard, something that helps to avoid the situation whereby the child always waits for the next course.
10. Sneak the good stuff in!
In the long term, we want to use all of the above to help our kids to develop their own tastes for healthy foods, however in the short term, where we are worried that they are not getting enough vegetables or healthy fats or protein etc. we can sneak them in by tweaking foods they do like to eat.
Homemade “junk foods” are one way to do this, fruity seedy snack bars, homemade chicken nuggets or fish fingers. Pureeing vegetables to add to pasta sauces is another.
If all that seems a bit overwhelming, just focus on one thing at a time and take your time working through the different aspects and ideas. And yes, I may have once thought I would sail through since I was, of course, a nutritionist doing everything right, but alas nobody is immune, so if it helps you, you can also take comfort in knowing that!
Join 1000's of families learning at home
Get 3 months of free access to our award-winning nursery education app.