Are Your Kids Fussy Eaters?

Or do you wish they would just eat a bit better!

Fussy eating in children is one of the most common parenting issues. No matter how ‘well’ kids are weaned, refusal to eat and becoming termed a 'fussy eater' often shows up as they get older. For some, eating becomes a battle ground. These tried and tested methods should help all kids, fussy eaters or not. 

These are the three keys to ensuring that your little one gets the best nutrition to support their growing bodies and minds:

TOP TIPS FOR FUSSY EATERS

  1. Set a good example - eat well and eat in front of the children
  2. Have ‘table’ rules - have one meal all together every day at a table NO DISTRACTIONS - stay at the table until everyone has finished - try one bite (for any new food, one bite must be tried, even if it is spat out after chewing!)
  3. Engage with food - involve kids in preparation and at the table talk about what goes where e.g. protein for muscles, carbohydrates for energy and vitamins for feeling well - without one, the others won’t work very well
Christmas dinner baby led weaningYoung children often eat anything. It gets harder as they get older. Follow our tips to help prevent battles over food.

More Information For Encouraging Fussy Eaters

I’m always a little surprised when people comment on how well my children eat. In fairness, I have seen my share of fussiness, resistance to new or unfamiliar foods, and tantrums at the table. However, with a little trial and error, I (and everyone who does this!) have found that encouraging good eating habits in our children is surprisingly easy.

1. Setting A Good Example

Children learn eating habits from their parents first and foremost. Later, siblings and peers will also be important. This is not a revolutionary concept – as a parent, you are the main (if not sole) point of reference for your child, especially in the early days. They rely on their observations of you and your behaviour to teach them how to act, what is good to eat and what is to be avoided. Make sure that you eat together – after all, how can they learn from you if they never see you eating? Eat, and be seen to be eating & enjoying, the kind of foods that you expect your child to.

2. Table Rules

A set of table rules are consistently applied.  All children, particularly those on the autism spectrum, thrive in a consistent environment. I remember the first time that I watched Temple Grandin’s TED talk, one of the points that really stuck with me was that when she was growing up, manners and rules were really important. The same was true in my childhood home and I am sure that this has been integral to the healthy relationship my children have with food. 

  • There is no need to be draconian about it and to try and enforce every aspect of behaviour. In fact, too many rules or rules that are inconsistently applied do more to undermine your efforts than nothing at all. Our set of rules is simple and has developed with time and experience. The main purpose is to ensure that mealtimes are as stress-free as possible, and that the children become confident in their eating habits.
  • Always eat together for at least one meal. Our breakfasts are usually a more relaxed affair with either my husband or I eating with the children while the other does morning things (a shower, prepares the bags and gets the clothes ready). However, dinner is at the same time every night and we always eat together – it’s a chance to pay attention to the children, discuss the good and bad points of what we are eating and introduce novel foods in a relaxed way.
  • Eat at the table. It might seem a little old fashioned but meals are eaten at the table, without toys OR TV.  Everyone then stays at the table until the slowest eater has finished. When people start leaving the table, especially if they are going to an appealing activity (watch something on the telly, play a game, get to the computer), it leaves the slowest eater with a choice of staying alone at the table, rushing to finish the food, or leaving food uneaten in order to join in with the activity. This undermines any effort to develop a healthy relationship with food where your child recognises the sensation of satiety. 
  • While we are waiting for the slowest eater to finish, we have family conversations – how was the day, who did what, if someone did something particularly well, any upcoming events. It has always been the time of day when we talk to Runa about interpreting people’s moods and actions, or, if we are introducing a change in routine we discuss it then. 
  • Many children on the autism spectrum experience food-related problems including over- or under-eating, neophobia or a restricted food choice due to sensory issues (texture, colour or flavour). They are more likely than other children to show avoidance behaviour such as distraction (playing with toys or other items at the table) or trying to leave the table. Establishing these table rules and applying them consistently will be a great asset in helping your ASD child as it provides an opportunity for them to see both the social side of eating and that the act of eating should be enjoyable and stress-free.
  • The one-bite-rule. I have never forced either of the children to finish their food or to eat something against their will. This single act is the one most likely to lead to food resistance in a child and fussy eaters. In time, regular forcing of food against the will of the child teaches him or her not only that eating is stressful but that dinner is not about putting something into their body that it needs but rather a battle of wills between them and their parents.  It’s an easy trap to fall into – watching your child reject food, particularly if they are underweight, is difficult and in fear of establishing this as a habit, many parents resort to forcing food into their child’s mouth thinking that it will be only once or twice. However, I have seen time and again that instead, this is the behaviour that becomes the habit and the dinner table becomes a battlefield. 
  • My approach has been to ensure that each plate is well-balanced with a selection of food, all of which is healthy to some degree. I tell them that they are very welcome to leave any food that they don’t like but they are not going to leave it without even tasting it first. One bite of each item is enough to show that they have tasted it and still do not like it. In this way, they regularly meet a variety of flavours and textures, gain confidence in exploring new foods and I facilitate the sense of control which is very important to ASD children.
  • When I am introducing novel foods, I make sure that the plate always contains some food that I know the children will eat in addition to the new food. Then, the children are encouraged to taste the novel food before they start on the favoured one. Whenever they eat something that they have initially shown resistance to, I give them with lots of praise (positive reinforcement) – with ASD children rewards work much better than punishment.
baby eatingBabies who engage with their food will be more open to new foods in the long term (sometimes much longer term so have hope!).

3. Engagement With Food

There are many, many ways that you can help your child become relaxed and familiar with a range of nutritious foods. Even fussy eaters benefit from this.

  • One of the easiest is to allow them to help prepare it – I’ve found over and over that when the kids help to make the meal, they are more likely to eat the meal, especially when their efforts are praised by the parents.
  • The next best thing is to present them with foods that they need to put together themselves – wraps, dips, burgers and buns, spreads for bread. This gives them the feeling of control which almost all children thrive under.
  • Get them involved in choosing from a 'menu' once a week or as often as you can.
  • Finally, you can make food fun – present it in unusual ways, talk about which part of your body gets which part of the meal. Let your imagination go wild and your kids will love it!

Spend a little time preparing your approach – think about, and discuss what small set of rules you would like to adopt as a family. If you include the children in the discussion (if they are old enough), they are much more likely to stick to them. If you already have a 'fussy eater' try not to remind them or berate them. Let them get involved and follow your good example. Most importantly, enjoy eating together as a family – set the good example, provide nourishment rather than sustenance, and good eating habits will naturally follow! 

Written by Heather

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