Why don’t you just tell them they HAVE to eat everything on their plate?
Any person who is parenting a fussy eater has heard this many times and knows how hilarious this concept is. But for those of you who are unfamiliar with the whole thing, this statement is akin to suggesting that people just MAKE their cat have a bath.
So, for parents trying to figure out how to introduce new foods to their picky eaters, we spoke with expert Shivaun Conn – Accredited Practising Dietitian and Accredited Nutritionist.
Here’s how she recommends tackling the picky eater situation.
What are we talking about when we say ‘picky eater’?
Many parents consider their children fussy or picky eaters, but the spectrum is vast.
On one end, you have kids who just aren’t enthused about trying new things. On the other, you have kids who will literally only eat one thing – such as pasta.
Sometimes fussiness can be sensory-related, sometimes it’s psychological and sometimes it’s simply preference. But according to Shivaun, there’s one thing we can all control – the narrative we create in our home around trying new foods.
She suggested that parents try these 8 tips to help encourage their fussy kids and toddlers to give new foods a go.
1. Embrace neutrality rather than negativity
Shivaun advocates that the best way to approach fussy eating is with emotional neutrality.
“Food becomes something to be feared, or a means by which kids can assert their autonomy. By refusing to eat foods that parents have strongly encouraged them to eat, or made threats with, kids are trying to regain control over a situation they don't feel comfortable with. This is a normal human response when we feel that our autonomy/freedom to choose is being taken away!”
She recommends setting food-related boundaries and being calm and neutral around those boundaries. Don’t force your child to try things, but make sure they aren’t throwing food on the ground or pushing it off their plate onto the table.
2. Talk about food
Encourage food curiosity by talking about things like colour and crunch. Discuss where different foods come from, and explain which foods are good for their health. Ask them why they like their favourite foods and tell them about yours.
Keep these conversations going so they become curious about trying new foods.
Sometimes fussiness can be sensory-related, sometimes it’s psychological and sometimes it’s simply preference.
3. Involve them
There’s no easy way to get fussy eaters to eat vegetables overnight, but involving them in the process is a great place to start.
At the shops, ask them to pass you the cucumbers or have them search for healthy snacks. As you know, kids love to be included in decision-making! When at home, they can unpack and wash the vegetables in preparation for dinner.
For many time-poor parents, this can sound daunting. But Shivaun assures us that if you can manage to do this even once a week then it will help in the long run.
4. Present food in different ways
A great way to get kids to broaden their horizons is by offering food in different shapes or textures.
“It’s normal for children to decide they only like hard carrots. That just means they are in a crunch phase,” says Shivaun.
Just ask them what shape they want and if they feel like having hard or soft carrots today. Keep those options open, even if they always give you the same answers.
5. Don’t throw out leftovers
If your child is only eating a quarter of what you put on their plate, avoid scraping that food in the bin*. Instead, offer them their leftovers when they come back hungry.
Acknowledge that they don't have to eat everything right now, but if they're hungry later, that's the food on offer. Try to avoid giving in and making toast instead. Consistency is key.
*Obviously, keep food safety in mind – at some point, you will HAVE to throw it out.
Set boundaries, don’t force your child to try things, but make sure they aren’t throwing food on the ground or pushing it off their plate onto the table.
6. Make it fun
Jump online and explore creative ideas for picky eaters. There are a lot of clever people who make fun food like panda rice balls and rainbow fruit skewers.
This helps teach your kids to enjoy food while exposing them to a greater variety of meals. These creative recipes may not include every section of the food pyramid, but it’s OK. The aim is to make progress with your picky eater and encourage them to try new things. You don’t want to still be fighting these healthy eating battles when your children are teenagers.
7. Give yourself a break
“Sometimes you just need to have a break, lower your standards and regroup. No one is perfect and your family’s diet won’t be either,” says Shivaun.
Tomorrow is another day and if you’re fed up dealing with a fussy eater then those negative emotions will likely surface.
8. Reach out for help
Some parents will read these tips and think there’s no way any of this will help their child. If this is the case, then it may be time to reach out to a dietitian who specialises in this area.
It’s always a good idea to seek professional help if your child’s food habits are causing serious concern for you.
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Shivaun Conn is an Accredited Practising Dietitian, Accredited Nutritionist and Certified Health Coach with particular interests in nutrition, lifestyle, executive health and health behaviour change.
Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board June 2021