"Yucky!" Tips for fussy eaters from The Children's Dietitian
Has your toddler suddenly decided they no longer like peas, having eaten them happily since they were weaned? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. We’ve asked paediatric dietitian and food therapist, Lucy Upton, to give us her tips on fussy eating.
What is fussy eating?
Fussy eating comes with many names – picky, choosy, selective... these are umbrella terms that describe a number of characteristics of a child's eating preferences. For instance, they might show 'disgust' at new or unfamiliar foods, refuse foods they've previously eaten, or perhaps accept certain foods at nursery or Grandma's house that they won't eat at home.
The whys and wherefores are numerous, and it can be frustrating and concerning as a parent to see food rejected, but there is light at the end of the 'fussy' eating tunnel!'
Lucy’s tips for supporting your toddler with fussy eating
Pressure off – this is super important!
Any pressure at mealtimes is likely to reduce engagement with foods, impact appetite and cause mealtimes to be a place children want to avoid or no longer feel safe. Pressure can come in many forms, and all equally need to be avoided. These include:
- Bribing or negotiating, for example, “If you eat this, then...”
- Paying too much attention to your child eating and encroaching on their space
- Guilt-tripping, such as, “It took me ages to make this”, or begging
- Placing food on a hierarchy or giving earning potential, like offering a preferred food in exchange for "just one bite" of another food
- Excess praise – believe it or not, getting too overexcited when a child eats a new food or a full meal can actually increase pressure
- Dragging out mealtimes until children finish ‘x’ amount of food
Ultimately, if you catch yourself doing or saying something at mealtimes with the intention of trying to get your child to eat a new food or eat more, it could well be pressure.
Similar to many other aspects of a child's day-to-day activities, having a routine around mealtimes can be hugely beneficial.
It can be tempting when your child doesn’t seem to be eating much or is repeatedly asking for snacks to fall into the trap of letting them graze. This can disrupt appetite regulation, motivation to explore new foods at mealtimes and increase stress.
Aim for a regular routine of three mealtimes and one or two snack times per day, spaced throughout the day.
Don’t be tempted to swoop in with rescue meals if your child refuses their meal – as long as there is an accepted food/s included within their meal, you’ve given an opportunity for eating.
Avoid spending ages at the table, and consider how long your child spends on any given task. For toddlers who flit between toys every 5 to 10 minutes, a 30-minute mealtime can feel huge. Consider reducing the time at the table if needed, and as a general rule, avoid anything longer than 30 minutes.
Mealtimes can often be a little chaotic, and it can also be easy to adopt habits at the mealtimes that seemingly help children eat, such as screens or distractions.
In the long term, however, getting the right environment for mealtimes allows children an opportunity to feel safe, pay attention to you and the food at the table, explore and listen more easily to their bodies.
Key tips for your mealtime environment include:
- Avoid screens or distractions – in the long term, these don’t work and can disrupt appetite regulation and opportunities for learning about food
- Calm – having a relaxed environment is important. Aim to avoid disruption, distraction or bringing stress and worry to the mealtimes (they always notice!)
- Seating – appropriate seating is more important than most parents realise. If a child doesn’t feel stable, supported or comfortable, it can have a huge impact on mealtimes and attention span. By one year of age onwards, aim to have your child up at the family table, and make sure what they are sitting on (for example, their chair) supports a good seating position (this should include a footrest, and ideally promote a 90-degree position at their ankles, hips and knees)
Family meals are really important in helping to combat fussy eating. Eating together allows huge opportunities for children to develop trust and confidence around food.
Children often observe trusted adults and peers with food, meaning others at mealtimes can be supportive of regular exposure and role-modelling opportunities. Aim to eat the same foods together as much as possible, even if you just have to sit with your child and have a very small plate which includes what they are eating. We know 4pm dinner times aren't everyone's cup of tea.
It sounds obvious, but if children are not exposed to different foods, and those they are more reluctant to engage with, then they do not have the opportunity to learn about them. It’s like asking them to learn to ride a bike, but not giving them a bike!
Children need regular opportunities to see, smell, touch and explore a variety of foods. Aim to include a least one ‘exposure’ food per mealtime, and pair this or offer alongside foods which you know your child currently accepts. It doesn’t need to be a whole new meal.
If there was a magic wand to transform fussy eaters into foodies overnight, then it would be coming your way. The reality is, it takes lots of time and patience for children’s range of foods to expand and to develop confidence with new meals (even if they are not ‘new’, your child can’t remember what they accepted as a baby!).
Focus on small steps – like your child touching or smelling food they wouldn’t normally, or accepting food onto their plate which was previously labelled as ‘disgusting’. All these steps are essential, and often eating the food is the final step a child takes to learning and accepting it!
It can also be supportive to manage your expectations around a child’s eating in general. Their eating habits can look very different to our regular routine as adults, and that’s ok!
Children’s appetites vary hugely – they have growth spurts and times when growth slows. They are also very good at regulating their appetite across days and weeks, so not every day will look the same eating-wise.
If you have any concerns about your child’s growth, they refuse whole food groups or textures, feeding differences have been persisting or getting worse and/or they are lacking in any skills needed for eating, for example, self-feeding or oro-motor skills (they struggle to chew or swallow food), then please seek support from a health professional
To find out more from Lucy about why and how fussy eating develops during toddlerhood, click here to read: Wait, you liked it last week! Why your toddler might become a fussy eater.