14 November 2017

Are you accidentally making your child a fussy eater?

Could you be contributing to fussy eating in your household? It is surprisingly easy to do if you don’t know what you are looking for. Seemingly innocuous actions can have a significant impact on a child’s relationship with their food. We used to have regular meal time battles, bribing our kids with dessert and negotiating over peas. It was hard work for everyone but, fortunately, those days are a distant memory.

 In recent years there has been a consensus reached amongst feeding professionals that a strategy called “Division of Responsibility” produces the best results in dealing with kids that are fussy eaters. Essentially, the idea is that a parent is responsible for the what, when and where of feeding and the child is responsible for how much and whether. This strategy goes a long way towards ending meal time battles and has been the foundation for many kids to develop strong, ongoing, healthy relationships with food… and it is much less stressful for us as parents or carers too!
The story does not end there. Yes, Division of Responsibility is a great way to get results, but it is the additional details that we as parents can pay attention to that can really move the needle.
Without realising it , we can get into habit and routine that fosters fussy eating. Small changes and new approaches to things at home that can unknowingly contribute to fussy eating can make a big difference, here are some hacks and tricks that could help banish meal time battles for ever!

·         Don’t refer to your child as “fussy”; it will become a self-fulling prophecy! Whether you label you child directly or indirectly it will have a negative impact on their relationship with food and reduce their own expectations on what is expected from them in terms of eating and trying new things. Whilst we are at it, we should avoid telling our kids what they like and dislike. Kids need to find out and experiment for themselves. Every parent has had a child refuse a food that they have previously enjoyed and the reverse can happen too, once hated foods can be welcomed back onto the acceptable list.

·         Be honest about food; Don’t hide the veg and don’t tell kids that carrots will help them see in the dark! Many parents and even some recipes boast about hiding veg in sauces, muffins, smoothies, etc. This can be a short term gain as it develops mistrust around food. Kids hate being tricked and if/when they find out that there is mushroom sneaked into their spag Bol they will not be happy and a seed of doubt around all food will be planted. Be proud about ingredients, even if it is met with initial rejection. The same goes for night vision carrots, chest wig inducing crusts and anything resulting in growing up big and strong! Kids don’t see these results and it just undermines any authority we might have had about food.

·         Set a healthy example. Like it or not, kids are like sponges constantly learning from us. Whether it is learning how to be respectful or how to accidently drop an F Bomb whilst driving, they are watching us all the time! The same goes for food. Now, I don’t want to be preachy here. Trust me, if I was on death row my last meal would be beer and sausages… and that is just to start, but if we demonstrate healthy habits then there is a greater chance that our kids will inherit those habits. As role models we have a responsibility to eating healthily, in moderation and not stuff too much crap into our faces... at least not whilst the kids are watching! Feel free to plough half a packet of chocolate hobnobs and then deny any knowledge of where they went (guilty!) but try to ensure that the habits that your kids pick up from you are good ones… this goes for eating and drinking; no one wants to be the parent of the child who has to draw a picture of what mummy likes to do…. and they draw you sitting on the sofa with a big glass of red (and the other half of that packet of choccy hobnobs!).

·         Serve a good plate of food. This is two fold. Firstly, be honest with yourself. Is your food tasty? You have a much better chance of beating meal time battles if your food is good! Work on your cooking skill and don’t be afraid to experiment and try new things. Print out recipes or mark them in cook books if they go down well and before long you will have a solid repertoire of family favourites, don’t get stuck in a rut. Taste the food you serve and season it. Kids appreciate flavour as much as adults and as long as a child is not feasting on salty processed foods then seasoning meals will not blow their salt intake through the roof. Secondly, serve appropriate portions of food. Kids are the same as adults; sometimes they are just not hungry. Ever sat down to a meal and been served a huge plate of food and been expected to eat it? It is not nice and it is the same for kids. As an example, portion sizes of meat should be the same as the palm of child’s hand, not a steak the size of their face! Don’t psyche kids out with unsurmountable amounts of food, go small with options for seconds.

·         Relax during meals. Avoiding the temptation to be a helicopter parent. Don’t hover over an eating child giving a running commentary on what they are eating or not eating. Revert back to the division of responsibility and let them get on with it. Praise is a very strong commodity in the world of a child but it should be reserved for times when a difficult or boring task has been completed. We praise kids for tidying up after themselves or getting themselves dressed… or not waking mummy and daddy up in the middle of the night. If we praise for eating we are giving the message that eating is difficult or boring and this is the opposite of what we want to do.

·         Create a feeding friendly environment. Meal times should be a positive family experience purposely designed around eating from start to finish. Try to prise kids away from any screens 10 minutes prior to eating and keep screens off during meals. Get them involved in setting the table, make sure that any child seating is comfortable (right height, feet supported in high chairs, close enough to table). Allow kids to serve themselves when safe to do so but, above all, try to relax and enjoy the time… which should be easier if kids are left to be responsible for their own consumption. Meal times should be happy social times… although this might not always be the case as there are still kids involved!

·         Have appropriate age / developmental expectations. There can be other things that regularly irritate parents at the dinner table, aside from the consumption of the food itself. An inability to sit still or at the table (our 5 year old somehow regularly manages to end a meal standing next to his chair!?), sloooowwwww eating or general distraction can all be very frustrating. These incidents need to be looked at in terms of age appropriateness. Experts suggest that meal times should last between 10-40 minutes. Is it reasonable to expect a 5 year old to sit for that whole time, probably. Is it reasonable to expect a 2 year old to sit for all that time, perhaps not and as such they should be allowed a little leniency. Also, try to go easy on table manners, allow kids to enjoy and explore food… there is plenty of time to develop table manners once the foundations of a healthy relationship with food have been laid. Let kids squash, squeeze, mush, spit out lumps and lick their plates!

·         Keep calm and carry on. Never has this statement been so appropriate, well, almost never. Have a united front with everyone on the same page as to the expectations of feeding, especially the adults. Accept that there will be good days and bad days. Meals that have been adored one day will be left untouched the next time they are served. Keep introducing new food as if they are not offered, then they can’t be tried. Alter firm favourites; if you kids love penne pasta, try serving  fusilli. Different should be the norm.

Building a solid food foundation for kids takes time. If your child is fussy then their habits will take time to change but they will and it will be a snowball effect. Introducing the first new food will be a slower process than introducing the 10th new food. The process will be the same but become simpler over time. There will be a temptation to return to old ways and let bad habits creep in and these can quickly undo the good work that has been done. Fussy eating should not be seen as a phase that will pass, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it does but it can be after years of mealtime battles and stress. It should be seen as an opportunity to teach our kids how to have a healthy relationship with food; they will thank you for it!

Parenting is tough enough. We don’t need to battle with fussy eaters too! 

Neil Welsh writes at Progressive Family Food, the website all about how to end meal time battles and enjoy stress free family dinners. Visit for your free pdf on how to get your kid to try one new food. Trying one new food is the first step on the path to building a positive relationship between our kids and their food, for life.


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