Do you have a fussy eater?
Believe it or not, most children go through a fussy eating phase as they learn the skills of eating and start to exert their independence over the food that they eat. For the parents, this can be a frustrating, exhausting and worrying time.
So how can you break the fussy cycle? Firstly, it helps to understand what’s happening inside your little one’s head. Secondly, there’s a trick you can try using – it’s called a ‘special plate.’
Put yourself in their shoes
Imagine you are holidaying in a remote jungle village. Your hosts have just served you a hot bowl of donkey’s intestines and boiled snake. Did you just get a bit squeamish reading that?
For most of us adults, being served that dish would make us anxious. We would be nervously wondering what it will taste like. Thoughts such as ‘What texture it will be? Maybe it will be absolutely horrible? Will it make me throw up?’ would be running through our mind.
For many children, the task of trying new foods or eating foods they dislike can bring on these exact same feelings that we feel if we are being asked to eat donkey’s intestines. Disgust, anxiety and fear of the unknown. Except our children aren’t an adult, and understandably they don’t know how to make sense of or control these feelings and emotions. Instead, they throw it on the floor, kick and scream, cry, yell, and just flat out refuse to eat it. Because they don’t understand it.
Remove the fear
Making these foods ‘normal’ and therefore removing this fear of the unknown, can really help to break the fussy eating cycle. You can remove this fear of the unknown by gradually and gently exposing children to the disliked foods.
It is important not to force a child to eat a food they dislike. Research has shown that forcing a child to eat a certain food (using either bribes or threats)actually causes the child to dislike that food even more. This dislike then carries with them into adulthood. The aim in childhood is to create healthy habits which promote eating a wide variety of foods to ensure optimal nutrition and health into adulthood.
Use the ‘Special Plate Trick’
This is a multi-step process which takes time, patience and understanding. It won’t happen overnight, but introducing this special plate may be the trick to breaking the ‘I hate broccoli’ phase.
Try these steps:
- Purchase a special plate. This can be any plate your child might find fun. Dora the Explorer, Thomas the Tank, you get the drift. Place a small amount of the disliked food (let’s use pumpkin as an example) on this special plate which you sit just to the side of your little one’s normal dinner plate. Explain that they don’t have to eat the food; it’s just there to try if they feel like it.
- During this process, the adults must eat the food too. By modelling the behaviour, you are teaching by ‘doing’ instead of just telling them what to do. They will copy you and watching you eat the food will bring normality to that food. So, even if you don’t like pumpkin and never eat it, you have to start. They have to see you eating the food with their own eyes.
- After one week of doing this, ask the child to pick up a piece of that food from their special plate and play with it. Don’t worry about mess, get the child to explore the food and ask them to tell you what it feels like in their hands. Ask questions about the food – “Is it squishy? Hard, soft? What does it smell like?” Remember, they don’t have to eat it. Get them to squish it, sniff it, chop it, as much tactile experience as you can.
- After a week of this, ask them to take a piece of this food off the special plate, and put it on their main dinner plate with the rest of their food. Again, tell them they don’t have to eat it. They just have to become comfortable with it in closer proximity to them. For some children who refuse to have pumpkin anywhere near them, becoming comfortable with it on their plate without drama can be a big step and a huge milestone. Again, get them to explore the food with their hands and continue asking them questions about the food.
- Over time, start to serve this food on their main plate. Don’t bring attention to this, simply leave it there for them to quietly explore.
- It is likely that one day, you’ll see the child pick up the food and try it of their own accord. If they don’t, that’s ok. Ask them gently to take a bite and continue to ask them questions about the food.
This is a process that will take time but will be worth the wait for the long-term health benefits, and it might just save some arguments at the dinner table! It’s all about removing the fear of the unknown.
- Turn the noise off – Extra noise can actually be quite overwhelming for children while they are eating. Turn the tv off, the music off and let the children concentrate on eating.
- Don’t hover – Just leave them alone to eat. Don’t sit there watching their every move. That would make an adult nervous and cranky, let-alone a small child.
- Let them make mess – If you’re hovering while they eat and scolding each time they drop broccoli on the floor, or smear pumpkin in their hair, they are bound to become anxious at meal times. I certainly would if my husband was scolding, cranky and disappointed with me at each mouthful of my dinner
- Relax – Children pick up on the tiniest bit of tension. Even when you’ve had a mega day at work, are busy trying to cook dinner, tidy up and help with homework (all at the same time of course), little one’s pick up on this. By the time you put dinner on the table, frazzled, they feel this too
- Pair liked foods with disliked foods – If they love cheese but hate broccoli, whack them together on the same plate.
- Make sure their feet are touching something stable – Often little ones can’t reach the floor and have their feet dangling. Many high chairs don’t come with a foot rest. After some time, this can cause pins and needles in their feet and lower legs. Definitely not a comfortable way to eat and will cause them to wriggle and squirm. Make sure their knees are at right angles when sitting and feet are touching something.
- Focus on the week not the day – It’s easy to freak out thinking ‘But she hasn’t eaten any veggies or fruit today’ but children’s eating patterns change drastically from day today. She might not have wanted to eat any fruit today because she gorged on three punnets of blueberries yesterday and is just ‘fruited out.’ It happens to adults as well. Look at what they have eaten over the course of the week to determine if they are eating enough and whether their diet is varied, rather than individual meals or days.
- Serve dinner earlier – If you find they are having a melt down during dinner at 6pm, serve it earlier. Maybe 4pm fits their body schedule better and catches them before they are too tired. Little brains are exhausted, and learning to eat takes many skills and lots of brain power for children. Our daughter eats dinner at 4:30 pm for this reason.
- Too much milk? – Make sure that if your child is over 1 year of age, they aren’t drinking more than 600ml of milk per day (from a bottle or a cup). If they are, they are likely filling up on milk, and too full when it comes time for meals and snacks. More than this amount can interfere with iron adsorption and will mean they also miss out on a wider variety of nutrients because they are filling up on the milk
- Tell them you understand – If I was crying and upset about having to eat a bowl of donkey’s intestines, and my husband just ignored me, or yelled at me to ‘HURRY UP AND JUST EAT IT’ – I would be mortified. I would probably throw that bowl of donkey’s intestines at the nearest wall. Acknowledge your little one’s feelings and fears and reassure them that they are doing a great job. That you are there to help them. As children get older you may have to use more direct language and set clearer boundaries, but as babies, toddlers and young children; yelling at them to eat only serves the purpose to create fear and anxiety at a time that should be relaxing and enjoyable.
JOIN US ON FACEBOOK FOR MORE TIPS LIKE THIS
Tara is a university qualified nutritionist, renowned for her no-nonsense approach to nutrition and health. She helps families learn how to live a healthy life without the need for fad diets or expensive crazy ingredients. Just real food, simply
This article was originally published in Profile Magazine