Updated: Apr 14
Have you've got a little fussy eater?
If your child is rejecting or throwing a tantrum at meal times, this can be completely normal.
In most cases, hiding fruits & vegetables in meals, frequent introduction, bribery and patience can guide you through the fussy eating phase.
But what happens when fussy eating leads to outright refusal to eat anything but crackers or chocolate chips? Perhaps you have a child who refuses to eat most fruits and vegetables or who limits themselves to a few specific foods. In these more extreme cases of fussy eating it can be a daunting experience trying to ensure your child is receiving their optimal nutrition.
As a naturopath, I work with children who are chronic fussy eaters including children with autism spectrum disorder, anxiety or attention-deficit disorder. Through my experience of working with fussy-eaters, I have compromised an ultimate fussy-eaters guide to get you through this awkward stage!
Prevention is the best method for fussy eating.
The most common mistake is introducing sweet food too early. Sweet foods include natural sugars found in foods like banana, pumpkin, kumura, mango and sweet fruit. If your child is exposed to these food first, it is much easier for them to develop a sweet tooth.
This eventually becomes apparent when you begin to introduce food like broccoli, cauliflower, avocado, silverbeet or meat into your child's diet. If your child is used to having sweet food they may begin to reject any food which does not have the familiar sweet taste they are used to. I mean, if you were a child wouldn't you much rather a piece of sweet banana over boiled broccoli?
I recommend first introducing your child to bland foods or vegetables. After your child has developed a taste for these types of food you can begin offering sweet foods in small quantities or frequencies.
Note: It is Important to offer babies a wide variety of food between the ages of 6-12 months months, before they have the ability to get fussy!
Already Have a Fussy Eater? My Tips & Tricks
Don't give into Bribery
Maybe you can convince your toddler to eat a few pieces of broccoli in exchange for ice-cream after dinner. It sounds like a win-win situation. However, I recommend avoiding bribery tactics with your children. Although this tactic can work or some children, it can lead to unhealthy eating associations as they grow up. Some of these patterns can remain fixed & difficult to change in older years. For example; how many of us adults now feel the need for a sweet treat after dinner because we ate all of our vegetables?
Your Toddler will Not Starve
Scientists agree that toddlers do not have the capacity or willpower to let themselves starve. If they are hungry, they will eat. It is important to note that toddlers eat differently to adults. Your toddler eats in a cyclic manner; maybe eating like a horse one day and the next like a rabbit. I recommend patiently observing your toddler to discover their natural eating pattern. Once you discover your child's eating preference, continue to offer them a wide variety of food at different times of the day. If you allow your child to regulate their own food intake this can help develop healthy eating patterns.
Over & Over Again
On average, parents will stop offering a food after it has been refused by their child 3-5 times. However, it is agreed that it can take 10-15 times (even up to 30) before some foods are successfully introduced.
Introduce Food at the Right Time: Avoid introducing new foods at 5.00-6.00pm when children are the most exhausted. During these hours they will be less responsive to change. The optimal time to introduce new foods are a few hours after breakfast or lunch when your child is not overstimulated, or too tired, but still a little peckish.
It can be tempting to watch how your child responds to new food. However, the act of watching can make them nervous. I recommend placing the new food in front of them before casually walking away for a few minutes. Let them take it in, touch it, play with it. Please note: If you have a young child you should always mindfully observe to ensure they do not choke on their food.
Use a Pick-Plate
If you separate food into different compartments on a pick-plate it can help your child feel more in control of their food. This gives your child an opportunity to interact with new foods which can increase their likelihood of eating it.
Avoid excess Dairy & Carbohydrates
Dairy products and carbohydrates are essential for your child's development but they can reduce the flavor of other foods placed on their plate. If your child is fussy I recommend reducing refined carbohydrates (ie: white pasta, white rice, white bread) or dairy during main meal times.
Make it Interesting
Children are sensory. You may find success if you offer food in fun shapes or if you play your child's favorite music or story while they are eating. Some parents also find their child is more likely to eat from a special plate. For example: If your child loves Thomas the Tank Engine, they may be more inclined to try a new food placed on a Thomas the Tank Engine plate.
Family Style Meal
Children show a greater tendency to try new foods when it is offered in a family style pick-and-eat fashion.
Lead by Example
Children learn by observation. If you want your child to eat more vegetables I recommend sitting with them and eating your own portion of vegetables too.
Bring in the Love
In desperation, it can be easy to want to bribe or force your child to eat food. This may work temporarily but will not be a long-term solution for fussy eating. There can be great improvements in fussy eating when a child eats as a family in a safe, loving and enjoyable environment.
Meal time should be an enjoyable experience with no pressure on the quantity of food eaten. Allow your child to eat what they want from the food offered and allow them to leave what they do not want. Do not offer anything additional or special after dinner to cater for their fussy-eating.
Direct experience is another great way for children to learn. Invite them to help with grocery shopping, cooking meals or growing food. This experience can help your child see first-hand where their food comes from.
Healthy Little Eaters Game
The Healthy Little Eaters board game teaches children about nutrition. Psychologist studies show that children who were read books on concepts of food or nutrition doubled their voluntary intake of vegetables.
About the Author
Storm is a Naturopath & Medical Herbalist at Functional Naturopathy.
She is passionate about helping you find the root cause for your health concerns; hormones, digestion, skin health, fertility, autoimmunity, mood, energy, anxiety and more!
She loves working with natural therapies including; herbalism, supplementation, diet, lifestyle changes and superfoods.