How to feed fussy eaters. Part two.

Georgie Stephen Children's Health Leave a Comment

In our first post about fussy eaters, we began discussing fussy eating and the many different factors that influence it. We covered the reason why eating is not as easy as you might think and why some of our kids find it so difficult, as well as delving into the many underlying causes that trigger or drive picky eating behaviours.

We also started to talk strategy – what can you do to help your child move from being a fussy eater to a more adventurous eater?

We discussed:

  • The importance of repeated exposure
  • Why you need to set a meal and snack time schedule
  • What the division of responsibility in feeding is and how it can help

In this post, we continue to share additional tips that can help. But remember, there is no one size fits all solution to fussy eating and the most effective strategies for your child will depend largely on their underlying challenges (physiological, sensory, and/or behavioural), as well as their age, and their unique personality and character. This may mean you have to experiment with different strategies before you find the right fit for your child and family. Fussy eating does not disappear overnight and patience is absolutely essential in the process.

Close the kitchen between meals and snacks

Implement the rule ‘the kitchen is closed’ between scheduled meal and snack times. This strategy is particularly useful for those children who like to graze throughout the day but don’t eat a lot at any one meal.

Tell your child or children about the rule in advance so they know the changes that are coming. Once you have commenced the ‘kitchen closed’ rule, if your child refuses the food you provide at a meal or snack, you can remind them that this will be the last food available until the kitchen reopens again (and remind them of the next meal/snack time), for example, “this is the last chance to have your snack. The kitchen will be closing until dinner time at 6pm and there won’t be any food available until then.”

This strategy provides your child with a lot of autonomy – they can decide to eat or not and there is no force or coercion involved. It also teaches them the consequences of their decisions – if they decide to skip the meal or snack, there really won’t be any back up options until the next scheduled meal, and also encourages greater awareness of hunger cues from their body.

Often this approach is met with a lot of resistance, especially for chronic snackers or grazers, but try to have a strong resolve and stick with it. To help manage your child’s anxiety in these cases, you can say, “the kitchen is closed right now, but the next snack will be at 2pm, which is in 1 hour. At snack time we will be having apple slices and bliss balls.” Over time your child will learn that you are serious about the kitchen being closed and become better at making good decisions at each meal and snack based on their hunger and satiety levels.

Avoid pressure and force

As parents, one of our primary instincts is to feed our children to help them grow and develop into healthy, thriving beings. It is this instinct that often leads us down the path of pressure and force at mealtimes.

Pressure can come in many forms, some obvious and some not so obvious, some positive and some negative. Overt pressure can look like asking your child to take another bite, telling them to take a bite of a specific food (e.g. vegetables), withholding dessert, physically forcing another spoonful or bite into their mouth, or telling them they can’t leave the table until they’ve eaten a certain quantity of food. More inconspicuous forms of pressure include making comments about how much or what was eaten from the meal, encouraging, praising and rewarding, bribing, warning your child that they will be hungry later, or even talking about the nutrition and health reasons they should eat.

In the long run, pressure in any form overrides your child’s autonomy in the feeding interaction and interferes with their own awareness about what they feel like eating and how much their body needs. Negative pressure, in particular, can trigger a stress response or the fight-or-flight mode in children, which switches on anxiety and switches off appetite, making their meal or snack time a stressful experience and negatively impacting their food intake.

Share family meals together

Whenever possible, share meals and snacks together as a family. Obviously it is not always possible to have every family member together at once, but any family members who are home and available should participate in the meal or snack together, for example Mum and the kids, or Mum and just the one child who is home, or Mum, Grandma, and the kids, etc.

Family meals and snacks provide a multitude of benefits related to eating, but most importantly they provide an opportunity for social role modeling by other family members, e.g. Mum, Dad, Grandparents, and older siblings.

Social role modeling is one of the key ways in which children learn about the world around them. Mirror neuron systems in our nervous system link perception to motor action. This is why every meal and snack should be thought of as a lesson, where you, as the parent, are the professor.

Some ways in which you can be a good eating role model include:

  • Eating the foods that you desire your child to eat – research repeatedly finds that children are more likely to eat a given food if a parent regularly eats that food. Observing a parent consuming a food normalises it for our children. It also lets them know that the food is safe to eat the food – children look to adults for cues that the foods being provided are safe and not harmful.
  • Talk about the sensory experience of the food – the smell, shape, colour, texture, mouth feel, and taste. Lead by example and describe your sensory experiences of the food, e.g. “this corn is sweet and juicy, when I chew it the corn kernels pops inside my mouth!”
  • Over-exaggerate the correct motor movements (particularly useful for younger children or children still developing the correct oral-motor eating skills) – e.g. use big chewing motions with your mouth open, talk about how you are “chewing with your big strong back teeth”, swallow loudly and exaggeratedly.
  • Avoid making faces or negative comments about food – sometimes our own eating preferences as parents are inadvertently modeled to our children without us realising it.
  • Reframe your children’s negative comments about food from “I don’t like that” or “yuck/gross” to “your still learning about that food, it might take a few more tries before you learn to like it” or “wow, I can see that was a big taste for you, let’s try something with a smaller taste next time.”
  • Encourage greater awareness of hunger and satiety signals by talking about how their tummy feels. You can model with your own feelings, e.g. “my tummy is starting to feel full,” or “my tummy is making gurgling noises because I’m hungry and ready to eat,”

Serve the same food for everyone at mealtimes

This means no more short order cooking! No parent enjoys the desperate juggle of short order cooking to cater to the picky eating needs of their child or worse, of multiple children, while also trying to still prepare and eat foods that they themselves enjoy and are nutritious. Trying to find a meal that suits everyone’s ‘needs’ can be one of the most challenging things for parents of picky eaters, and most of the time, an impossible goal.

While short order cooking may provide you with the path of least resistance in the short term by avoiding meltdowns and food refusal, in the long run it is only serving to worsen picky eating habits. It sends the message to your child, whether inadvertently or not, that their every demand will be met when it comes to food and meals.

To add, it undermines the division of responsibility in feeding (see above), transferring the responsibility of ‘what’ is served at the meal onto the child. Ultimately this impacts your feeding relationship, leaving you feeling frustrated, overworked, and under appreciated.

Over time, serving the same meal for everyone bridges the gap between ‘my food’ and ‘other peoples food,’ or ‘kids food’ and ‘adult food,’ which is a common mentality we see in fussy eaters.

Transitioning from short order cooking to family meals will initially be met with a lot of resistance, so be prepared to stay firm, be patient, and commit to doing this over time to change habits.

Try the following strategies to lessen the impact of the transition:

  • Serving meals buffet style, where each component or ingredient of the meal is served in separate serving dishes in the middle of the table. Everyone can then serve themselves the foods they want and construct the meal their own way, reducing the anxiety for picky eaters.
  • Always serve one or two of your child’s preferred foods at the meal so they feel comfortable that there is something they like included. You can still be considerate in your meal planning without catering to the demands of your fussy eater. The goal is not to deprive them of the foods they feel safe with, but rather to exposure them to other foods that they are still becoming familiar with, even if they don’t eat them initially.
  • Don’t give in and offer back up meals – stick to the ‘kitchen is closed’ between meals strategies, as discussed above and don’t agree to menu changes once the meal is served, e.g. getting out the yoghurt or crackers if that wasn’t part of the original meal plan.
  • Make sure to offer all the major food groups at each meal so that your child’s nutritional needs are being met – protein, fats, and carbohydrates. Always offer one or two vegetables. Try to offer the most nutritious foods you know your child likes, for example, their favourite fruit or vegetables.

For buffet style serving, the following meals and recipes work really well:

  • Tacos
  • Burritos
  • Pizzas
  • Burgers
  • Loaded sweet potatoes or baked potatoes
  • Roasted potatoes/sweet potatoes with toppings
  • Salads
  • Wraps
  • Sandwiches
  • Rice cake toppings
  • Fruit jewelry
  • Sushi rolls
  • Rice paper rolls
  • Savoury Skewers
  • Sweet skewers/fruit sticks
  • Muesli and fruit cups 

Get kids involved in cooking and food preparation

Children should be involved in as many aspects of the meal and preparation as is developmentally appropriate. Being involved in food preparation provides an opportunity to explore food without the added pressures of a meal, where the expectation is to eat the food.

Kids can look at the food, smell it, touch it, and watch it transform from one state to the next in the cooking process. They are gaining tactile experience with the food, which builds familiarity. The goal of involvement is not to taste or eat the food – simply to explore.

Getting your kids involved:

  • Kids aged under 5 y/o can be involved in as many aspects of the preparation as possible and safe. Some appropriate tasks might include stirring batter, washing vegetables and fruit, pouring liquid ingredients, mashing cooked veggies like potato or sweet potato, rolling dough, cutting soft fruits and vegetables (using age appropriate knife, e.g. Foost First Knife), or measuring dry ingredients
  • Kids aged between 5-7 should act as sous chef or assistant to the parent for one meal per week
  • Kids older than 7 y/o should be the head chef in charge of one meal each week, with a parent as the sous chef or supervisor

Let your kids play with their food

First come eating skills, then come manners. As adults, we often overlook that eating is a learned skill and for kids who display fussy or picky eating behaviours, what they usually need is help developing these skills in the right order. And one of the best ways kids learn is through play.

Playing with food also allows children the opportunity to explore the smell, texture, and shape before they reach the stage of having to put the food into their mouth. For some kids, the leap from being presented with an unfamiliar food to being expected to put it into their mouth is too scary and they need the opportunity to explore food without the added pressure of having to eat it. Once kids grasp the necessary eating skills, they will be ready to learn proper mealtime manners.

This approach may be most appropriate for toddlers and younger children. For older children, encourage them to take a ‘scientific’ approach to food – many older kids are interested in the physics and chemistry of the food. Start conversations about the physics of the food – the taste, the smell, the texture, etc.

The way we present food to children at meal and snack times can also be fun. Try cutting fruits, vegetables, sandwiches, and cheese slices into various shapes. You can also get creative with arranging foods in different patterns or shapes on the plate. Kids love to use their imagination and can help you to make these arrangements in the kitchen.

Need more help?

The strategies discussed above and in part 1 can be extremely effective at helping most picky eaters to overcome their challenges. However, there are a small proportion of picky eaters whose eating patterns are so restrictive that professional support is needed.

If you have greater concerns about your child’s feeding, you can take the Feeding Matters Infant and Child Feeding Questionnaire online to help you better understand if intervention may be required.

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