Whether you have a fussy eater, or a future foodie on your hands, there are going to be times during the early years when picky eating habits seep through.
When this happens, it can be hard to know how to handle fussy eater children.
From investing in fun kids’ plates, to involving children in mealtimes, and using the right rewards, we explore ten proven techniques for coping with a fussy eater.
But first, it’s important to remember that fussy eating is quite common in young children. From disliking certain foods, to having specific preferences, little ones can be particularly up and down. Nod along if you’ve ever been shouted out for peeling a banana the wrong way. We’ve all been there!
But first, let’s just take a quick look at what defines a ‘picky’ or ‘fussy eater’.
What is a fussy eater?
According to experts, ‘picky eaters’ are generally characterised as children who; “eat a limited amount of food, have strong food preferences, have restricted intake (particularly of vegetables), and who are unwilling to try new food.”
Nod along again if this all sounds familiar. You wouldn’t be alone. By time a child reaches two years’ old, half of all parent’s report experiencing picky eating behaviours.
Nonetheless, it’s natural for parents of ‘picky eaters’ to worry.
The NHS provide some useful guidelines around this, explaining that as long as your child is active, gaining weight and seems well, they’re most likely getting enough to eat.
Eating, after all, is part of the process of personal development. From the early days of weaning and getting messy with food, to having your own children’s plate and bowl set, as you get older.
So, let’s look at ways to tackle fussy eating.
1. Early exposure to a variety of foods
Food preferences start earlier than you make think. We’re taking as soon as in the womb. Research has shown that from as early as 21 weeks foetuses can discern flavours using both smell and taste.
Furthermore, a study by the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia found that babies born to mothers who have a diverse and varied diet during pregnancy and breastfeeding were open to a wide-range of flavours.
But, it’s never too late to address your child’s diet. The sooner you can introduce a variety of foods to them, the greater their palette will be exposed to new tastes and flavours.
If you’re struggling with fussy eater meals, why not try a taste challenge? Children love playing games, making it the perfect opportunity to sneak in some veg at the same time!
Start by putting together a variety of different easy-to-eat foods on their kids plate. Sliced carrots, quartered grapes, circles of cucumber, and a dollop of hummus for good measure. Ask your child to close their eyes (no peeking, we know what they’re like!) and guess which food they’re tasting. This is always a fun way to get them to experiment with new foods, while loading them up on fresh fruit and veg at the same time.
2. Make mealtimes fun
In the early days of weaning, parents play all sorts of games like ‘here comes the helicopter’ and ‘peek-a-boo’ during mealtimes, to keep little ones engaged.
Then, sometime in-between the toddler and pre-school days, it stops. Yet kids love to play, and it’s a great way for parents to engage and bond with their little ones.
It’s good to remember that mealtimes are a social experience for kids, and a good opportunity for parent-child bonding too. It’s not just about sitting down to eat, but about chatting and developing your bond.
It can be hard to know how to deal with fussy eater child, and play and entertainment may offer some assistance
As celebrity chef and dad of five, Jamie Oliver said: “If younger kids are struggling to eat the good stuff, letting them watch their favourite cartoon may distract them long enough to eat up. In reality, I guess a mix of tactics depending on their age is helpful.”
One of the many ways to do this is by having tools on hand that bring a touch of fun to dining, even presenting food in a fun way.
Registered dietitian and child nutritionist Dr Frankie Phillips, explains: “Making the dining table an enjoyable place to be is the best way to get kids to the table and keep them there.”
One way is through fun kids tableware.
For instance, Munchy Play® plates for toddlers were designed by a mum to get kids to come to the table and keep them there, whilst keeping food at the focus. The exclusive children’s plates are the first to feature a built-in track, transforming mealtimes into exciting occasions. The Choo-Choo plate, for instance (as above) features a built-in kids’ track inviting little ones to play along with their trains while eating. Universally appealing to girls and boys, it’s also great fun for parents to join in with, bringing a playful touch to breakfast, lunch and dinner time. It has had rave reviews from parents.
The key here is about making the dining environment an attractive one, so that kids will look forward to mealtimes with their fun kids tableware, car or tea party style!
3. Eat as a family
While there are no quick solutions to ‘picky eater’ child behaviour, research suggests that eating as a family is a good way to form positive habits.
Since children learn through observation, parents and other family members can act as positive role models.
There’s some evidence behind this too. Young children have been found to accept food more readily, when in the company of others eating the same type of food. Plus, it has been found to strengthen family bonds.
But perhaps most important of all, eating as a family can encourage adopting a healthier diet. A survey of 2,000 children (aged 9-14 years old) found that those who ate dinner as a family, more frequently ate more fruit and vegetables and food with higher nutrients. At the same time, they consumed less fried foods and fizzy drinks.
But with busy schedules it’s not always possible to eat together all the time. If this is the case, then aim to sit down as a family one day a week, perhaps at the weekend when everyone is together.
4. Use the right rewards
You’ve probably tried different incentives to get a clean kids bowl in your house.
Experts believe that non-food rewards are the best ways to promote food acceptance. For instance, small tokens such as stickers, or offering them extra play time after meals, can help to increase acceptance.
However, while praising children to let them know you’re proud of them is no bad thing, there is mixed opinion on praising children specifically for eating.
In the book ‘Helping your Child with Extreme Picky Eating’ authors Rowell and McGlothlin, explain:
“It may seem counterintuitive, but try not praising your child’s eating even if she makes progress. Praising her today communicates that if she doesn’t feel brave tomorrow, she has disappointed you. Praise can be another form of pressure. Children do best relying on internal motivation to eat, rather than eating for approval.”
5. Involve kids at mealtimes
It stands to reason that involving children in mealtimes, and the entire food process, may increase their iterest in mealtimes.
This starts with everyday activities such as grocery shopping, to helping prepare meals and even choosing their own children’s plastic plates.
Bring your little ones along to the supermarket and get them to help you pick foods. From apples to watermelon, milk to pasta shapes. Then, when it comes to mealtimes, get your kids involved in tasks suitable to their age and capabilities.
This might be picking out the apple to chop up, or helping to wash fruit, or maybe even serving pasta on their kid’s plate, with your supervision.
As an added bonus, experts have found that when children are involved in meal preparation they are also more likely to ‘increase vegetable intake’.
6. Present food creatively in your childs plate
Children are playful creatures that respond well to fun and play. So, if you have a ‘picky eater’, think about the different ways you can present food to make it more attractive to them.
For instance, there are some cute shape cutters, that allow sandwiches and pizzas to be cut into stars or triangles, and even jigsaw shapes. Why not try arranging foods into silly faces? It’s amazing what you can do with some carrot batons, hummus, sliced tomatoes and the right kids plate set.
On a similar note, you can allow kids to serve themselves, and invite them to name their dishes, like ‘Freddie’s fabulous fish pie’ or ‘Carey’s carrot face’. This goes back to the importance of making mealtimes fun.
For the more adventurous, there’s also a whole world of ‘food art’ to discover. Pinterest and Instagram are great resources for inspiration, just follow #foodart for some great examples. Just follow professionals like @eatsamazing and @leesamantha on Instagram, to explore some of the fun ways to get creative. After all, a ‘picky eater’ may be more inclined to try ‘boulders and trees’ than cheese and broccoli!
7. Choose fun kids' tableware
According to education consultant Penny Tassoni, the way that food is “served and presented” to children is important.
So, as well as presenting food creatively, you can also opt for fun kids’ tableware to bring it to life. For instance, invest in a fun kids’ plate that they’ll look forward to using, or introduce little pots to keep treats in, alongside kids-size glasses for drinking out of.
Their very own kids plate and bowls might make them feel extra special and excite them about dining.
Another example that Tassoni recommends is to “pretend to have picnics or parties and bring along favourite dolls and toys.”
Set on a built-in picnic table, the Munchy Play Tea Party kids plate (below) is a great way to enjoy tea-parties with toys, brought to life with cute illustrations.
As well as making the dinner table a more welcoming place, the act of role play is part of the development process too.
Registered dietitian and child nutritionist Dr Frankie Phillips, explains: “One of my daughters, for instance, feeds her dollies sitting next to her at teatimes, which I encourage because she looks forward to eating and role play helps with social development”
With as many as 85% of parents using strategies to get their children to eat, a fun toddler plate might just help on your culinary journey.
8. Sneak in veggiesOne of the biggest mealtime concerns parents have, is getting their kids to eat fresh fruit and vegetables. This can be especially challenging when you’re trying to come up with inspiring ‘fussy eater’ meals.
However, there are a few smart ways to sneak vegetables into dishes.
Firstly, think about your child’s favourite dishes and how you can add to them. For instance, at breakfast, porridge laced with sliced strawberries, sliced blueberries and raisins can provide a healthy start to the day. While pizza is ideal for adding plenty of vegetable toppings on, including; mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes, garlic and sweetcorn.
Secondly, consider swapping out ingredients for healthier options. Like ‘courgette’ fries instead of chips, homemade kale crisps, instead of crisps, hummus instead of ketchup.
If your child likes smoothies, then these are a great way to blend up a variety of fruits, such as; bananas, oranges and strawberries and serve them in an appetising way. You can even sneak in carrots and avocados when they’re not looking!
There’s also tons of great kid’s food recipes to make from scratch, that are easy to sneak vegetables in to. These include beef patties with sneaky veggies chopped in, or turkey and vegetable meatballs, always a hit with little ones
9. Be patient
It can be extremely frustrating to deal with a child that has little interest in food. However, take comfort knowing that ‘picky eating’ is common amongst young children, and most will outgrow this in time.
For instance, studies suggest that nearly a third (27%) of children aged three are considered ‘picky eaters’, compared to just 13% of children by the age of six.
Exercising patience is not always easy, but try to avoid putting pressure on your child to eat. Ultimately children tend to know their own appetites, even if it doesn’t quite match our expectations.
As NHS.com advise: “If your child rejects the food, don't force them to eat it. Just take the food away without saying anything. Try to stay calm, even if it's very frustrating. Try the food again another time.”
An issue often overlooked is control. When you think about nurseries and schools, children are subject to rules and order in their daily lives. Children might feel like they need to be in control of what they eat. So, giving them some choice about what to eat, how much to eat and even the kids plate they choose, might help reduce the stress of mealtimes.
In the meantime, don’t give up trying to explore new foods and trying to expand your child’s palette of taste. Studies reveal that it can take anywhere between 8 and 15 times for a child to accept a new food. Patience here is key.
And finally, you may want to consider the type and frequency of snacks you offer your child.
While snacks are useful to keep kids going during the day, you want to strike the right balance. Piling up snacks on their kids plate throughout the day is going to fill them up, making them less inclined to eat meals.
The best approach is to offer snacks two or three times a day, preferably at consistent times. The government has provided some helpful guidelines around this, suggesting that snacks stay within 100 calories. This can include a cracker with peanut butter, malt loaf slice, low-sugar fromage frais, plain rice crackers, or some fruit snacks for instance..
It goes without saying that unhealthy food and drink, such as sodas and sweets should be avoided when it comes to snacking.
Summary and take out
Parenting is demanding enough, without having to worry about coping with a ‘fussy eater’. However, ‘picky eating’ is very common in young children, and with time and patience, there are ways to navigate picky eating habits.
Seeing mealtimes from your child’s point of view is a great place to start. Introduce fun into mealtimes to make dining a more enjoyable experience to look forward to. Get kids involved in the food journey, from buying groceries to picking their favourite kids plate to eat from, and where possible, try and dine as a family. Limit snacks, repeat food exposure and above all – remain patient! These are just some techniques to experiment with, and hopefully you’ll start to see an improvement.
As a final thought, professionals advise looking at your child’s food intake holistically. So rather than worry about how much they eat every day, look at it over the period of a week to gain some perspective.
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