Ok, so some of us are blessed with kids who are and have always been amazing eaters. For other kids, it’s a different story. Many children have a fairly narrow range of foods that they are willing to eat regularly. My kids are definitely in the fussy camp! So how do we get our little darlings to eat a variety and range of foods (including all those “good for you” veggies!). It’s not an easy task but I think there are strategies you can use to try to get them to gradually branch out once in a while. Some, or many of the recipes on the site might be too unusual for some eaters but I do hope that you will find at least a few that might help entice your kids to try something new.
It’s important to ensure that we are giving our kids opportunities to try and experience a variety of new foods, flavours and textures all the time (even if they refuse to even put them in their mouth). This helps to teach them good eating habits for their future and is a great starting point to help achieve a healthy balanced diet and a healthy relationship with food. Fussy kids don’t necessarily need to become fussy adults! I live in constant hope that one day one of my kids will actually put that bit of pepper/mushroom/tomato that continually appears on their plates, into their mouth!
Kids are creatures of habit (aren’t we all) but at the same time, these habits are much less rigid and more easily changed than those of many adults! It takes some children to be exposed to a new food up to 15 times before they are likely to accept it as a regular part of their diet. If a child is only fed on a diet of cheese sandwiches and crisps, that is likely what they will become accustomed to eating. Children also have a much more heightened sense of smell and taste. This means that certain foods that taste nice to us, may taste much more bitter/sour/sweet/salty to them.
So what’s the secret to raising children that aren’t “fussy eaters”? I’m going to attempt to highlight some of the things that might be a useful place to start. As with everything parenting-related, this can be a testing time but trust me, I have been surprised how much difference it has made with my little ones…
Eat together, preferably around a table, without the TV on.
Serve your child(ren) the same food as the rest of the family. You can’t expect a child to eat what you’re offering them if they don’t see that you’re also eating the same (safe) food. If you’re all eating together , you are also (potentially) only partially focussing your attention on what they are or aren’t eating. This might mean that they feel less pressure to eat than if you as the parent were sitting staring at them whilst they are eating their dinner.
Eating together is also a great way to catch up and chat about the day. And obviously if you all eat together, you only have to clear up the kitchen once! Eating with a television on in the background can be distracting and children may switch off from the task-in-hand! They also won’t be able to pay attention to your praise when they do eat well. Other children may also be unable to identify feelings of fullness if they are distracted with the TV which can lead to over-eating.
Give small, age-appropriate portions and allow plenty of time for mealtimes.
Fussy-eaters may be put off by huge mounds of food on their plate. Try giving a small portion and offering seconds if the child is still hungry at the end of the plate. Some children do just have small appetites and this is completely fine (so long as they are growing and developing well).
Some children eat extremely slowly and it’s important that you allow this time. However, having mealtimes of unlimited length can be frustrating for everyone. Sometimes the use of an egg timer or count-down can come in handy. A 60 minute time limit may be a realistic guide to a suitable family mealtime length.
If your child relies on large quantities of snacks throughout the day, this may be distracting him/her from eating at mealtimes. If snacking is not of a concern, this is fine: some children do just prefer, or need to, eat little and often. But if you are concerned that eating too much in-between meals is affecting their appetite for dinner, try to avoid giving snacks too close to mealtimes or giving smaller snack portions in between meals.
Make mealtimes fun!
Even calling a dish a fun name can add some positive P.R. to a mealtime! My kids wouldn’t even entertain the idea of sitting down to a bowl of kedgeree but suddenly when it’s “Pirate Rice” they can’t get enough! Arranging the food in a fun and appetising way can also go a long way.
Let them get involved!
Getting a child to be involved in preparing the meal can also help familiarise themselves with new ingredients. Obviously the tasks you give them will be age-dependent. But helping put raw veg into a pan or pushing the button on the food processor (with supervision) can be fun things that they enjoy doing. I’ve found my kids are more willing to try something during this point in a meal! My son once ate all the raw mushrooms off the chopping board that I had prepared for a risotto! He would’ve had a tantrum if I’d given him a raw mushroom on his dinner plate! Teaching them about the process of meal preparation (no matter how simple) helps them to understand where their meal comes from. If they are involved in this process, they might be more likely to entertain the idea of eating it!
Offer praise for good eating!
Offer praise and attention when a meal has been eaten well (this might not necessarily mean clearing the plate). Try to avoid giving attention to fussiness!
It’s amazing what impact a sticker chart can have on young children! This has been a great strategy for our oldest over the last year (now 4 years old). He has branched out from an intially very limited range of meals during this time. We offer a sticker reward for trying something new and for eating without a fuss. Once he collects 10 stickers, he gets prize or a fun day out somewhere.
Try not to offer food as a reward. Your child may start to think of sweets as nice and vegetables as nasty. Viewing sweet foods as a reward may also lead to unhealthy food behaviours later in life.
If they don’t eat it, get over it!
If you make a meal that isn’t a hit, don’t make a big deal out of it. Giving negative attention for fussy eating won’t help the situation and may even cause the child to do it all the more. Don’t be tempted to prepare an alternative meal in its place. Explain that this is what is for dinner and that there isn’t an alternative. This may create a slightly stressful meal on the odd occasion, but once a child understands that there isn’t going to be something else in its place and that they are likely to be hungry, they are likely to get on with it! This is never an easy tact in parenting but like everything we endeavour to teach them, it really should help form a solid foundation for eating well.
Sometimes interspersing a few familiar meals in the weeks’ meal plan means that the child isn’t likely to go hungry every night. Or even making sure part of a meal contains familiarity can be enough to coax a child into trying the less familiar food(s) on the plate. For example, if you know your child likes carrots and rice, try making this the accompaniment with a dish that might be deemed as bit more “risky”. Unfortunately kids can be fickle with what they like from day to day so this isn’t always easy: one day they love potatoes, the next day they hate them! Just go with it and try not to stress!