A recent study of fussy eating in children aged 2.5 and over found that around a quarter of families struggle dealing with fussy eaters in their families.
Reports of fussy eating peak in early childhood, and battles over mealtimes seem to coincide with children “finding their voice” and using (sometimes loudly and firmly!) the words “no” and “yucky” – sometimes both at once!
So how can parents tackle fussy eating while saving their sanity, reducing food waste and help those growing bodies get all the nutrients they need to grow up big and strong? Here are some top tips, tricks and tactics for dealing with fussy eaters.
disclosure: this is a partnered post
You Choose What, They Choose How Much
A large piece of prevailing wisdom in the world of fussy eaters is that parents choose what goes on the table, and children choose how much they eat. By serving meals “family style”, with platters, plates or dishes of foods placed separately on the table, children are able to choose how much of any given dish they would like to have or try.
To get the best success from this strategy, make sure at least one of the options on the table is something you know your child will love.
Dig a Little Deeper
Understanding more about what children like, or don’t like, about certain foods can help you when dealing with fussy eaters.
Got someone who is loving learning their shapes? Why not cut cheese into a series of circles, squares and diamonds, which might encourage them to try something different?
This tactic can also work with favourite colours, or mimicking the texture of familiar and ‘trusted’ foods, opening children up to new culinary horizons. For instance you might try making some sweet potato fries or zucchini fries if your little one loves chips. There are plenty of creative food ideas for picky toddlers – just use your imagination!
Keep Things Friendly
Many times, a child’s willingness to try new foods will depend, at least in part, on the environment where they are eating. Ever noticed how much more your child eats at child care than at home? This is down to the social aspect of the child care setting, where they’re sitting with their friends in a low-stress environment. Although it can be hard, keeping mealtimes at home pleasant and free of anxiety can help children to stay open to new ideas and to try new things.
Letting the little things – like spilled drinks, or food falling on the floor – go by without too much fuss can make a big difference to how mealtimes go. Focusing on the social aspects of coming together for a meal, and keeping watch for positive aspects to comment on can help children look forward to eating together as a family.
When you notice a child engaging with a new food, or a food they have previously refused, even if it’s just smelling it, licking it, or touching it with their spoon or fork, praise the efforts they are making.
Ignoring any “dramas” and reinforcing positive behaviours can encourage more of what you want – and less of what you don’t!
Watch The Clock
Rather than being drawn into battles that go all evening long, set an expectation that mealtimes will be 20 minutes. For children, anything that goes for too long quickly loses its fun, especially if mealtimes have previously been tense experiences.
Even if a child hasn’t eaten anything, end the mealtime after 20 minutes, and don’t offer any alternatives until the next planned meal or snack time. Ensure they’re hungry for their main meal by avoiding any snacks in the hour before.
Successful mealtimes also hinge on what happens immediately beforehand as well. Sometimes it can be difficult to transition children from one activity to another, and if they are having fun, leaving the fun behind can be a potentially stressful time when dealing with fussy eaters.
Try having some quiet time before meals, and give children a reminder – “in 10 minutes, we are having dinner”, or “when the timer goes off in five minutes, we will be coming to the table.”
Big Steps For Big Kids
As children get older, they need more independence when it comes to food. While it can be tempting to keep up the spoon feeding so you know exactly how much your child is getting, giving children more independence can help.
Other ways in which children can be involved including choosing recipes, getting ingredients from the fridge or the cupboard, washing fruits and vegetables, or even growing ingredients such as herbs and vegetables in the garden.
When children are involved in the cooking and preparation of the meals, they may be more likely to try something new. This is why you’ll notice so many child care centres offering cooking experiences for the children. By getting the little ones to help pick the cherry tomatoes from the veggie garden to add to their homemade pizza (where the child helped roll the dough), a child will be more likely to give the meal a chance when it comes time to eat it. You may also find that once your child is at school, it influences their eating habits.
When it comes to new foods, children may need to see them 10 – 15 times before they are even willing to touch, try or taste it.
Putting new foods on the table along with familiar favourites, over and over again can familiarise them with seeing and smelling something they may not yet have tried. This is why child care centres often have fruit and vegetable platters in the middle of the table at meal times. Just exposing children to the range of options, and allowing them to see others trying (and enjoying) them, can be enough to help with dealing with fussy eaters.
Resist The Urge To Be ‘Old School’
While many of us may recall being told that we could not leave the table until everything on our plate was finished. That there would be no dessert until all the vegetables were eaten. Or even being served the same meal over and over again until it was finally eaten. These measures can actually make life more stressful when it comes to meals.
Punishing children for refusing to try new foods can give them the impression that trying new things is scary or negative. If children refuse to eat, calmly take the food away, and offer it again another time.
Even though it may be tempting to bribe children with sweet treats, this can backfire by making the sweet treats far more appealing than more healthy choices, and set the view that healthy eating is a chore.
Ideas and Inspiration
There are lots of resources and ideas out there for meals to tempt fussy eaters.
For some inspiration about presenting food in a way that will delight and engage children, check out these lunchbox ideas.
If more structure is needed, please see these ideas, which offer support and ideas for feeding preschoolers.
We hope you have found these tips, tricks & tactics for dealing with fussy eaters to be helpful in your pursuit of tackling fussy eating. There is absolutely no doubt that it can be stressful, but follow some of this guidance and hopefully you will be on your way to stress free family dinners.