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Is your child a fussy eater? Don't worry, it's perfectly normal for kids to go through a picky eating phase.
Some will only eat foods of a certain colour, some won't touch anything with a wet or slimy texture, some only want sweet foods. Sometimes a child can turn off food they've been eating happily for months, while others will only eat what they've always eaten and won't try any new food.
Trying to get a fussy eater to eat a variety of healthy foods can be a very frustrating and anxiety-inducing battle of wills. You want your child to eat what they've got on their plate because you know it's good for them and you want them to get all the nutrients they need to grow up healthy and strong. They simply aren't interested or just don't like it, so won't eat it.
How do we coax them into trying new foods without traumatising them by forcing them to eat foods they don't want to eat? It's so important we respect our children's bodily autonomy and teach them that they ultimately have the authority to decide what does and doesn't go into their bodies. However, we can't just let them eat sweets or plain white rice every day for the rest of their childhoods, so we have to get inventive and work out ways of getting our children interested in the food we want them to eat.
1. Slip Nutrients In Under Their Radar
So they won't touch any fruit or vegetables? Not to worry, we can always disguise the fruit and veg we want them to eat in foods they already enjoy. If they like smoothies, milkshakes or juices, throw in a load of fruit so they get their five-a-day all in one glass. Chuck in a handful of spinach and present it to them as a 'Gecko Superjuice' or throw in a load of strawberries and call it an 'Owlette Surprise'. You can make any colour drink and tie it into their favourite cartoon or book. We made a carrot soup the other day that the bunnies in our bedtime story ate, for example.
Make a pizza and blend a load of veggies into the tomato sauce. Make soup and whizz in as many vegetables as you can. With a nutrient-dense soup, you can get away with your child eating only a few spoonfuls. If they like toast, add peanut butter under the honey for some protein and choose a high-fibre loaf, so they get as many nutrients as possible per slice.
Dessert-time is also an opportunity to get some vitamins into them. Make a nutritious smoothie or juice and freeze it into ice lollies or make a fruit-rich ice cream. Give them some berries with cream or condensed milk to dip them in.
2. Think About Their Food Influences
Try and make sure your diet reflects the values you want to pass on to your child regarding eating habits. If they never see you eating fruit or veg, they are less likely to feel excited about eating it themselves. Kids like to copy what they see their loved ones doing, so think about whether your own eating habits could be affecting how your child views certain foods. Do you treat sugary foods as treats and rewards and leafy greens as an obligation? Do you expect them to eat healthier foods than you eat yourself, or foods you yourself don't like either?
When they watch videos on Youtube or play games on their iPad are the characters always eating fast food and sweets? It's amazing just how many videos aimed at toddlers focus on sweets and fast foods. If your child's favourite characters are always eating candy, if they play candy-themed games and watch nursery rhymes set in candy-worlds, it's no wonder they're obsessed with the sweets aisle.
3. Keep Portions Small
When introducing new foods it's best to keep portions tiny, so that kids don't feel overwhelmed. If you want them to eat peas with their dinner think about introducing the idea before putting the plate down in front of them. Let them try a pea on its own, and then add just a tiny handful along with the other food. This way they're less likely to see the peas on the plate and immediately shove the entire plate away!
If you want them to try some fruit, just give them one segment and eat the rest yourself. Seeing you eat more might prompt them to ask for more. Give them one strawberry instead of a bowl full of them. Two slices of cucumber instead of ten. A shallow bowl of soup instead of a full one. If they can eat just three spoonfuls and finish the bowl they might ask for more.
Less is more with fussy eaters! The most important thing is that they try new foods. Once they're familiar with the new food you can try upping the portions.
4. Let Your Child Help Cook Their Own Food
When a child gets to participate in food preparation some of the mystery and uncertainty about what they're eating naturally evaporates. Let them see what goes into their food, how it's prepared, and let them stir and add things to the pot themselves. This way your child may be more excited about trying the food out when it's ready.
How about growing some of your own veg with your child? Try out some cress on your windowsill or grow some tomatoes in your garden or by a sunny window. Let them plant the seeds, water them, pick them and prepare them with you.
5. Keep Distractions To A Minimum
Some kids seem to eat better when they're watching a cartoon at the same time or fiddling with a toy at the table, but in general, these simply distract the child from the task at hand! Eating together is a time for peace and connection and it's a good idea to turn off screens, turn down music and keep toys away from the dinner table. Show your child that when you eat together you focus on the food and your connection with each other.
Try and have everything on the table when you sit down to eat so that you're not constantly getting up, as your child might copy you. Your family routine might be eating your meal together and watching a film at the same time. This is, of course, fine but if your child is easily distracted it might be best to focus on the food first and have the dessert with the film! In the end, every family has their own setup but while working on your child's fussy-eating phase it's a good idea to focus on limiting distractions for the time being.
6. Accept Your Child's Taste And Texture Preferences
If your child hates slimy textures there's no point pushing tomatoes and okra at them. Try foods with tastes and textures similar to those they already enjoy. Maybe they enjoy crunchy things, so err on the side of safety and introduce other crunchy foods like cucumber, apples and peppers. Maybe they like warm liquids so why not add some soups? If they have a sweet tooth why not try sweet potato, sweet fruit smoothies or baby tomatoes?
7. Don't Let The Dinner Table Become A Battleground
It's so easy to lose patience when you've spent time planning and cooking a meal and your child won't take a second look at it. The key is to realise that they aren't being malicious, they aren't trying to annoy or offend you. They simply don't like the food or are anxious about it and reluctant to try it. There's no point taking it personally when our kids turn their noses up at what we've prepared, because it isn't personal. They're simply developing their tastes and forming their identity still, working out what they do and don't like, what's safe to eat, what might not be. These are evolutionary traits that once protected our ancestors from eating toxic foraged plants. Children are less able to flush toxins from their bodies so this might explain why so many kids seem to have an inbuilt aversion to leafy greens!
Eleanor lives in Brighton with her three year old daughter. They are always on the lookout for new experiences and environments to explore and exciting new activities to do together. One of their favourite ways to spend an afternoon is the cinema, you will always find them queueing for popcorn the minute a new kids’ film is released! They love getting the train to London in search of new activities and great places to eat. Eleanor is also training as a complementary therapist in her (limited!) spare time and is very interested in the practice of mindfulness.