Most children will experience a fussy eating phase, going from accepting a certain food one week to completely refusing it the next. The peak time for fussy eating onset is around 2 years of age. This can make mealtimes extremely challenging for parents as we know that children need to eat a mix of all the different food groups for optimal growth and development.
While there might be times when mealtimes feel particularly challenging, the good news is that children usually get less fussy as they get older. With perseverance and the right techniques, your child will most likely eat and enjoy a whole range of different foods. But in the meantime, here are some steps you can take to try and help make mealtimes as nutrient-dense and stress-free as possible.
• Early repeated exposure to a variety of flavours and textures from 6 months of age.
• Eating around other children that willingly eat vegetables. The research has shown children who spend time around other children that eat vegetables are more likely to mimic their behaviour and eat them as well. This could be an older sibling, cousins or a friend from school that you know eats certain vegetables that you could invite round to help to set a good example.
• Serve your child the same food as the rest of the family. Make sure your child sees the family eating together and enjoying a variety of different foods. Children are very much influenced by their parent's behaviour and dietary patterns, so ensuring family meals a few times a week will help!
• Introduce new foods in a familiar environment. If you are trying new foods in an unfamiliar place such as a friends house, cafe or restaurant children may be less settled are more likely to reject foods.
• Create a mealtime routine. Having a mealtime routine helps children to feel more secure and they then know what to expect - keep mealtimes regular and consistent.
• Set aside 20-30 minutes for meal times and 10-20 minutes for snacks. If food is not eaten within this period allow your child to leave the table or quietly remove their plate.
• Let your child regulate their own appetite. Children are better good of their appetite, much better than adults. You provide the food, they decide how much they eat. Pressuring your child to eat or using food as a reward or a bribe will actually increases fussy eating.
• Make sure your child eats in a calm environment without distractions. This includes technology such as iPads, phones and the TV, as well as toys.
• Keep trying. Don’t worry about the first few refusals of a food. You can make sure you keep trying to offer them foods in different ways, for example boiled eggs instead of scrambled. If a child knows they can reject food and you will offer them something they prefer, they will learn to continuously reject new foods. This is something I see with milk. Many parents are worried about their child going hungry so they offer them a big bottle of milk instead.
• Encouraging self-feeding and allowing them to get a little messy at mealtimes. I understand how stressful it can to watch your child cover their chair and the surrounding area with food, but playing with food and exploring how it feels when it is squished between their fingers is all part of the experience. It helps with sensory development, improves motor skills, encourages self feeding and may help to reduce fussy eating.
• When children are 2-3 years or older encourage involvement in food shopping, preparation and cooking. Things like edamame are fun as kids can pop open themselves and spiralling vegetables can also be a fun job for older children. Serving family meals that everyone takes from a central plate also allows them to serve themselves from a range of healthy options.
Birch, L., Gunder, L., Grimm-Thomas K., & Laing, D. (1998). Infants' Consumption of a New Food Enhances Acceptance of Similar Foods. Appetite, 30(3), 283-295. doi: 10.1006/appe.1997.0146
Chao, H. (2018). Association of Picky Eating with Growth, Nutritional Status, Development, Physical Activity, and Health in Preschool Children. Frontiers In Pediatrics, 6. doi: 10.3389/fped.2018.00022
Cooke, L., Wardle, J., & Gibson, E. (2003). Relationship between parental report of food neophobia and everyday food consumption in 2–6-year-old children. Appetite, 41(2), 205-206. doi: 10.1016/s0195-6663(03)00048-5
Galloway, A., Fiorito, L., Francis, L., & Birch, L. (2006). ‘Finish your soup’: Counterproductive effects of pressuring children to eat on intake and affect. Appetite, 46(3), 318-323. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2006.01.019
Hursti, U. (1999). Factors influencing children's food choice. Annals Of Medicine, 31(sup1), 26-32. doi: 10.1080/07853890.1999.11904396
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