Setting Expectations

  • Are you concerned about your child being a fussy eater? Our responsibility as parents is to provide an array of nutritious food that is available for our children to eat.  If in spite of all your creative attempts to tempt them, they still choose not to eat, then it is important that you do not see this as a commentary of who you are as a parent.  We often feel we have succeeded if we get them to eat a mouthful and feel like a failure if they do not want to eat what we offer.  Food is just food, and is not a commentary on our parenting.  As long as they are healthy, growing and have food available, try not to get too caught up in what they are or are not eating.
  • Children’s eating habits will most likely change according to their physical and psychological development.  After a year of rapid growth, most toddlers begin to gain weight more slowly and therefore need less food.  It is also a stage of curiosity and active stimulation seeking, which can be distracting and mean that food, especially in the form of mealtime rather than a snack, takes second place.
  • Be realistic – Most children have small stomachs and they will know when they have had enough to eat.

Communicating Expectations

  • When giving your ‘fussy eater’ a meal, offer a variety of choices, even food that she insists that she doesn’t eat.  Approach each mealtime with a clean slate as if you expect her to eat what’s there and keep it casual.  Food  can become a power struggle and by being casual it takes the focus off food as a means of control in the relationship
  • Not eating what you give her can also become a way for her to assert her independence.  A good way to approach this is to offer choices with regards to cutlery, the way the cucumber is sliced etc. and get her to help you to prepare the food where possible.  Even if she doesn’t eat the first time, it may encourage her to try new things the next time.
  • Most children can be fussy eaters at times.  Bearing this in mind, It is  important that mealtimes do not escalate into a power struggle.  A child can have a lot more patience than an adult and we all know who will win!
  • Not eating can be a way for her to gain attention from you.  It may be useful to consider whether this is the case and then approach things from the angle of ‘special time’ and praise and attention in other ways.
  • Kids learn by example. Try and eat together as a family as often as possible.  If you eat together and you eat a variety of food and seem to enjoy ‘healthy’ foods, there is a greater likelihood that your child will too.  It is however not always practically possible for this to happen regularly.

Practical Considerations

  • Choose your battles – When asked to consider whether mealtimes are a worthwhile battle, most parents will come up with a resounding ‘No’.  Decide what issues are worth fighting at mealtimes and if you choose to approach it as a battle, monitor whether any aspect of this approach is working for you both.
  • Avoid too much fruit juice and cordials as these can reduce the child’s appetite for other foods.  Where possible, try and encourage your child to drink water.
  • Don’t serve your child too much food –for some children a large helping can feel overwhelming and it would be better to keep portions small and appealing to begin with.
  • As we often create social occasions out of eating, it may be helpful to invite one of your child’s friends over for a meal as children are more likely to try new food if they see other little people trying the same thing.
  • When encouraging new foods or forgotten favourites, make fun out of mealtimes.  Pizza faces, toast in interesting shapes with the help of a cookie cutter, indoor picnics and playing restaurants can encourage even the most reluctant eater to eat, especially when it is part of pretend play.
  • Some children eat more if offered healthy snacks rather than focussing on mealtimes.  While we can are cautious to encourage snacking at an early age, it can help to tempt more reluctant eaters.  Use fun terms for healthy foods like an apple boat, a banana wheel or a magic carrot wand.  For more reluctant eaters, grazing also helps to avoid the tantrums and meltdowns that come with them becoming too hungry to manage their emotions effectively.
  • Toddlers and small children may become fixated on one food at a time.  This can be very frustrating for parents who want to provide a balanced diet, and perhaps it would be more sensible to aim for a balanced diet over a week rather than over a day, as the latter often difficult to achieve.
  • It is usual for some children to only eat certain food and textures and this is often a phase which changes over time.
  • Try and make sure that your child’s feet don’t dangle when sitting, but that they can touch the floor while eating.  This helps them to sit still for longer and they will be more likely to finish a meal.
  • Exercise can help a child to build up an appetite.  They are more likely to try new food if they feel hungry.

Children probably need less food than you think.  If however you remain concerned that your child is more than a fussy eater and may be malnourished, you should visit your GP and if appropriate, obtain a referral to a paediatrician or paediatric dietician.

In a very small number of instances a child’s aversion to eating or extreme behaviour at mealtimes may have psychological causes.  In other families, the parent child relationship may be negatively affected and a child psychologist’s input may be helpful.  If you think that either of these may apply to your family, seek help from your GP in the first instance, or contact us for a confidential chat about your concerns.