In the five years I spent managing a child care centre, I worked with lots of parents worried about or frustrated with their young children’s picky eating. Eating can be such an emotional issue for parents – they want the best for their child and worry when their child’s eating habits change, when they think their child is not eating enough variety or simply not eating enough food full stop!
At around 12 months, children – many of whom were previously great eaters – slow down in their growth rates and often begin to show signs of indifference to certain foods, thereby becoming known as fussy or picky eaters. Research evidence shows that behavioural interventions are the most successful in addressing eating problems with young children. Effective interventions include;
- Repeated exposure to novel foods
- Modelling behaviours by adults
- Adult responsiveness to the child’s eating cues, including hunger and satiety
- Positive reinforcement of a happy, safe, relaxed feeding atmosphere combined with recognition, praise and approval
(Centre for Community Child Health, 2005).
Based on my experiences working with many families and now as a mother myself, here are my five top tips for encouraging picky eaters;
1. Eat with your toddler
The first thing I ask a parent whose child is not eating is, “Do you all sit down together as a family to eat?” Usually, the answer is ‘no’ and this is often a result of parent work commitments making the timing of a family meal difficult. Whilst I understand these constraints, this is the simplest and single most effective strategy for improving your child’s eating habits. I suggest;
- Sitting down at the dining table together to eat
- Focus on making the meal a relaxed and pleasant experience. Be a positive role model for eating a variety of foods for your child.
- If you are unable to all sit down together every night, then try to time the meal so that at least one parent can sit and eat together with the child. If you prefer to have dinner with your partner at a later sitting, then just eat a small serve with your child.
- There are high chairs available that allow you to push your child up to the dining table to eat (instead of using a tray). Check out the Ikea Antilop as an example.
2. Try to avoid making mealtime a battleground
Parents want the best for their children. They want them to be strong, healthy and well adjusted, and so when a child refuses to eat, parents often feel anxious about the child’s nutritional intake, and also frustrated about the time spent preparing food that goes straight into the bin. Add to this the fact that toddlers and young children are developing a greater sense of independence and wanting to be in control, and emotions can easily explode into a mealtime battle. Instead, try;
- Starting off with a very small serving for your child and then provide ‘seconds’ as required. Celebrate what they do indeed eat.
- When introducing a new food serve it with familiar foods.
- Re-offer rejected food periodically as new foods may often need to be offered multiple times before a young child will accept and enjoy them (I have heard this is up to 15 times).
- Try to provide some choice within the meal, for example, “Will you eat your carrots or your beans first?”
- Treat food refusal calmly and without fuss so eating is seen as a positive experience, not a power struggle. Decide how you feel comfortable dealing with the refusal before it happens.
- Make mealtimes social and fun by talking together with your child and other family members about their day, talk about the food you are eating, and model good eating habits and table manners for your child.
Our dining table is next to a large window overlooking our garden and Immy and I will spend time over lunch looking at the birds and butterflies visiting our garden or talking about our vegetables that are growing. At dinner, we tell Dad 101 all about our day and ask about his. We also point out the vegetables we are eating and talk about the ones growing in our garden.
3. Timing is everything!
Timing and routine are both essential for easy mealtimes. Be careful not to miss the hunger cues as toddlers quickly lose interest in feeding themselves, and in the food itself, especially when tired.
- Try and plan meal and snack choices ahead, so that you are not scrambling to prepare food when your toddler is whining at your feet.
- Avoid snacks too close to mealtimes. Try a few frozen peas in a cup if dinner is running late rather than a biscuit, cracker or other more filling alternative.
- Give drinks of milk after the meal not before so your toddler doesn’t feel full already.
My slow cooker is a lifesaver on weeknights, I can put it on in the morning or at lunchtime and the evening is much more relaxed if I am only preparing an accompaniment or side dish.
4. Learn to let go
Toddlers usually love to feed themselves but can you handle the mess? I hate cleaning up after a meal as much as the next mum but Immy is always given a spoon, and sometimes a small fork, with her meal to allow her to give it a go. Hands work well too! Myself and Dad 101 help out with extra spoonfuls of food during the meal as required
- Where you can, allow your child to be involve in meal preparation or cooking experiences. From six months old, Immy sat beside me as I prepared meals. As soon as she was able to eat finger foods she would munch along as I was preparing. Now, at 16 months, she likes to ‘help’ cook and we enjoy cooking meals and treats together.
- By the age of 2 years your child is able to help with setting the table and clearing away afterwards.
5. Provide variety
Right from when your child begins eating solids I would suggest carefully considering how you will introduce variety of food choices. This may include choosing some more unusual vegetables for making baby mash and, when the time is right, adding a good variety of meat, fish and dairy products.
- Don’t be afraid to experiment with favours. I told the story of Immy and the olives in the Lamb Ragout here, I am still astounded by how much she enjoys unusual flavours like olives and gherkins.
I noticed that at around 11 months Immy went through a phase of food refusal and I realised that I had gotten lazy and was only serving portions of foods I knew were her favourites. She had started to get bored of these tastes. That is when I started planning for her to eat what we were eating.
Feeding fussy eaters isn’t easy. However you decide to manage your child’s picky eating, be patient, encourage but try not to force and, as with all things parenting, try to be consistent.
Do you have a fussy or picky eater? How do you manage?
- From Fusspot to Foodie: Tips for Broadening Your Toddler’s Nutritional Horizon
- Getting Dinner on the Table (With Kids Underfoot!)
- 5 Toddler Snack Ideas That WON’T Fill Them Up Before Dinner