By Kylie Dawson
It’s normal and natural for a child to be a ‘fussy eater’. ‘Fussy eating’ is a part of a child’s developmental journey, and like all development, your child might appear to be fussier than your friend’s child, or their level of fussiness may change over time. Your child might enjoy playing with their food more than eating it, they might have a favourite food one week and then refuse to eat it the next, or you might battle to get them to eat anything other than chips and Vegemite sandwiches.
I hope the tips below give you some ideas to think about, and I encourage you to check out the links at the end for more great information and ideas about this topic.
1. Plant a garden together. I know this seems a little off base, but I have seen so many children who were fussy about eating happily try a range of things from the garden that they had helped to plant and grow. Nutritionist Jenny Friedman supports this approach and cites a range of research to back this up. Friedman discusses how supporting your child to help establish a food garden can help to increase their comfort with food and build their curiosity about food, both of which are key to motivating them to trying new foods. She also discusses how working in the garden is a pressure-free environment where the child can be around food with no pressure to try anything. And she also discusses how gardening can be enjoyable, help reduce stress, and provide positive family time around food, all of which will help your child build their confidence and willingness to try new things. And don’t worry, you don’t have to be a member of Gardening Australia to get the benefits from gardening with your child; a pot of mint on the deck, or a small cherry tomato plant is enough to get things started.
2. Establish some enjoyable and supportive routines to engage in before mealtime. Perhaps you wash your hands together whilst singing your favourite song, and then you set the table before putting on a special candle or set of twinkly lights that are near the dinner table. Maybe you could choose a plate, bowl, cup and cutlery set together that can be just theirs that they can set out and use at mealtimes.
3. Set an amount of time that mealtime will take, say 20 minutes. Let your child know that when the timer goes off, mealtime will be over. When the timer goes off, get your child’s help to pack up anything they haven’t eaten, letting them know it will be there for them at the next mealtime, or if they get hungry later. If mealtimes extend for hours, then the experience has the potential to become very frustrating and tiring for all involved! Understandably your child may not appreciate this new approach in the beginning and may express their frustration in many ways. It is our job as the adult to try and remain calm and to remember that when we experience change, we often find it difficult as well. Before implementing this, or any other change, consider what you will do to manage yourself if your child has some big and intense feelings about the change; when we have a plan to support ourselves, we can find these challenging times easier to manage. For example, you might decide that if they become very upset and frustrated for a prolonged period you are going to say “I can see you are upset and angry, and that is ok. I am going to go out into the quiet of the garden to relax; you can join me out there if you would like”. Or you might decide you are going to put on some nice music and dance; again, you can share that you see and understand their feelings, that you are there for them, and that they can join in dancing with you if they would like to.
4. Encourage your child to assist you in the kitchen, and where possible, make it fun! Bake cookies together, ask for their help with washing vegetables (our little people do often love a sink of water to splash in!), encourage them to freeze strawberries and grapes and to see what happens (they might even decide to try them and see if they are like an ice block), and you could make Friday night the night they get to choose what they have for dinner. Something to remember is that being in the kitchen with children is messy; when we accept that it is highly likely our kitchen will be a bit of a disaster afterwards and that that is ok, we are better able to handle the egg that cracks onto the floor or the water that spills out of the sink.
5.When introducing a new food, set small and adjustable goals. Let’s say you are introducing carrot; put a small bit of carrot on the plate with other foods they like, and at the beginning just ask them to tell you what it smells like or feels like when they touch it. In this first experience they might just “play” with the carrot, and it might end up in the compost, but this is a good start to them engaging with a new food with no pressure to eat it. The next time you might encourage them to kiss it, and the next time to lick it. It might take many engagements before they taste it.
At Arden Early Learning, we provide food for even the fussiest of eaters. We enjoy getting feedback from the children in attempts to always make the meals something they love to eat and enjoy.
There is other good information available to help support parents and carers of children who are exhibiting some fussiness around food, and here are some of our favourites: