We all have foods that we hate.
Some of us love egg whites but can’t stand the yolk; some of us would run a mile rather than take a nibble out of a Christmas sprout.
However, for parents of fussy eaters getting them to eat anything healthy, let alone a green vegetable, can feel like an on going battle.
So – what can you do?
1. Set the ground rules
Try to sit down and eat together as a family whenever you can and set some clear mealtime ‘rules’.
They don’t have to be formal rules, written down on a chart but if you set the tone for what will happen at mealtimes then calmly and consistently make them clear to your child.
The rules can be as simple as: you are in charge of what is served (and where and when) and your child can take care of whether of how much they will eat. No pressure, coaxing or punishment if they don’t eat everything or even anything. This is with the knowledge that this is mealtime and there won’t be anything more until the next.
2. Cut down on big snacks and drinks
If your child is filling up during the day on lots of snacks and drinks then they won’t be hungry at mealtimes and any newly set rules you try to introduce will go out of the window.
Growing kids need little snacks to refuel during their busy days but keep them small and light.
Stick to water rather than milk or juice for drinks. When the time comes for them to sit at the table for dinner, you want them to be hungry enough to want to eat.
3. Something familiar, something new
None of us want to become a short order chef and make different meals for everyone. But you can help make mealtimes more successful buy offering choice.
For example serve only one meal but with different choices on the table, including things you know your child likes. If your child loves roast chicken, that might be the main meal but alongside it there might be a choice of carrots or broccoli, for the vegetables, and a choice of roast potatoes or sliced bread as carbs.
If you are having pasta then there might be a choice of toppings such as grated cheese, tomato sauce or peas and bacon.
Everyone can choose and add what they want. That way you are offering familiar and ‘safe’ foods but also variety. Your child may see everyone enjoying some of the new foods and want to try too. But with no pressure at all.
4. If at first you don’t succeed…
If your child clamps his mouth shut when you give him broccoli, then it doesn’t mean they will hate it forever. Many parents give up too soon when offering new foods to their child.
A recent survey revealed that 90% of caregivers offered kids food they did not like only three to five times before giving up. Research has shown that it actually takes about 15 tries before children will like a new food. Repeated exposure and persistence is key.
So don’t give up, keep offering new foods and encourage your child to try them. Even if it’s just one bite. It’s also worth offering the same food in different ways. So, for example, try grated carrot as well as carrot sticks. If your child hates the texture of raw cheese perhaps they will like melted cheese on toast.
5. Repeated exposure doesn’t always have to mean eating
When you are exposing your child to new foods they don’t always have to take a bite. Let your child pick up, smell, squish and lick all sorts of new foods with no pressure to eat them.
Let them pick different foods to explore from the supermarket or the fruit market and ‘play’ with them.
6. Food chaining
If your child has limited their diet to a very small handful of plain foods, then there is a technique called food chaining, which is a useful way of widening your child’s palette.
First write down ALL the foods you know your child will eat. Start with these foods as your base foods. Then slowly build on these base foods by offering a new food that is very similar to the base food.
Introduce new foods one at a time and alongside familiar food. So, for example, if your child likes chips then you could try offering sweet potato chips, parsnip chips or roast potatoes. If they like frozen chicken nuggets then first try a different brand, then move onto home cooked nuggets and over time start changing it to breaded fish, breaded veal or pork.
In this way you can slowly open them up to new flavours and eventually move on to plain grilled chicken, fish and other meats. The idea is to build up very gradually to see how much you can widen your child’s palette.
As your child accepts each new variation then keep offering that food frequently but at the same time bring in new variety. Some children will allow you to move quickly through a lot of steps, others will need to transition more slowly. It can be a slow process but introducing new foods in this safe way to very fussy eaters can be very successful, so it’s worth a try.
7. Make food fun
As well as making new foods safe (as in the example of food chaining above) make them fun.
If your child doesn’t like cooked vegetables, then they might love a colourful platter of raw vegetables arranged in pieces to look like a flower.
Or if they turn their noses up at a large piece of fruit they might like chopped fruit threaded on skewers poking out of a tin foil covered potato (to make a fruity hedgehog!).
Keeping things fun and relaxed can be a much greater motivator to try new foods than if there is a fraught atmosphere and a pressure to eat.
8. Get them involved in food preparation
A great way to get children more interested in food is to let them help you shop for and prepare meals. You could try making pizzas or wraps together and offer a wide choice of toppings, or do some simple cooking with your child.
They will be exposed to a variety of different foods and they might be so proud of their culinary efforts that they will be more likely to eat it when it is ready.
Banish the parent-guilt
It’s stressful enough having a fussy eater without the added worry of feeling that you are, in some way to blame. It can feel like every other child you know is merrily munching away on all their fruit and veg and relishing new meals with gusto, whereas yours seems to exist on a diet of cornflakes, chicken nuggets and plain pasta. What on earth are you doing wrong?
It might help to know that you’re not alone. A recent study found that:
“nearly half (46%) of children are picky eaters at some point during early childhood. This suggests that picky eating is usually a transient behavior and part of normal development in preschool children.”
Further research has revealed that some children may be born with an innate fussiness about food, and parents are not necessarily to blame if their child becomes difficult at mealtimes. The research, which looked into the eating habits of twins, concluded that:
“fussy food preferences are – largely – down to who [a child] is and the genes she has inherited.”
Fussy eating may be down to nature as much as nurture but it is a trait that can be changed. Parents play a key role in encouraging their child to eat and try new foods.
When to seek advice
By getting rid of your own guilt, taking the pressure off mealtimes and exposing your child to a variety of new foods, you should soon be on your way to happier mealtimes. If, despite all your best efforts, your child continues to restrict his diet then seek advice from your G.P.
There is an eating disorder called Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (AFRID), which may initially begin as picky eating, or the consumption of a limited number of preferred foods. If a child has ARFID their food choices will become more selective and rigid over time. If you are worried about your child’s very picky eating then get advice from a doctor. They can check your child’s growth charts, talk to you about your child’s eating habits, reassure you and support you in helping increase their diet. If they feel that there is a more serious problem (such as ARFID) then early treatment is best and can help your child tackle their issues with eating while they are still young.