Have you ever got into a battle with your child about fussy eating?
Whilst it is a common parenting worry that our children aren’t eating enough, or enough of the right foods, for some parents it becomes a major struggle.
If you are finding each mealtime stressful, and your child hardly ever eats anything it can be a lonely, anxious place.
Maybe you feel like a failure because you see other children gobbling up carrots and kale.
Or you’re getting lots of advice from well-meaning friends and family that doesn’t sit right with you.
If you’re worrying about what your child eats every mealtime it may be time to get some help.
The division of responsibility
When I’m working with my clients we use an approach called the division of responsibility for eating.
This approach sets out that you, as the parent, are responsible for what the children eat, when they eat it and where they eat, and the child is responsible for whether they eat it or not, and how much they eat.
TIP 1 – Be clear in your own mind what your role is in mealtimes, and what responsibility belongs to your child.
Here are some further factors to consider when dealing with a picky eater in your family.
Understanding the cause of fussy eating
It’s not always possible to identify why children become fussy, but it’s usually multi-factorial. Sometimes they want more control over their lives, or they learn that this is an issue that triggers parental attention.
Sometimes they lack optimal digestion so refuse certain foods which can cause a tummy ache (e.g. protein). I commonly hear in my clinic that texture is an issue with foods like meat, or if your child once had a bad experience with a food.
Working with a nutritionist is a good way to identify the biochemical or emotional reason.
Toddlers naturally narrow down their range of acceptable foods around 18 months to 3 years (called neophobia where they are afraid of new things) but should accept more foods as they develop.
Tip 2 – Consider what might be driving the fussy eating from an emotional, developmental, physiological viewpoint. Explore all these areas with your child in an age appropriate way.
Your relationship to food and feeding
There is no right or wrong way to be around food, but perhaps consider your own relationship to food and how this influences your parenting at mealtimes.
- Do you hate to see waste?
- Do you fear hunger, pr scarcity of food?
- Do you worry about what others say about your child’s eating,
- Are you worried about your child getting fat?
Tip 3 – Reflect on your own upbringing with food, and your own relationship to food. How might this be influencing the situation with your child.
Aim to make mealtimes enjoyable again. Eat with your children to role model enjoyment of food.
Focus conversation about the day, not about food.
Create clear, regular meal and snack times, but do not allow children to graze all day so they are hungry for mealtimes.
Tip 4 – Eat together at mealtimes, and make mealtimes about connection and enjoyment through conversation.
Trust in your child
When we step back from pleading, pressurising and making threats or bribes about food it changes the dynamic.
Allowing your child to choose what they eat out of a range of healthy foods gives them back control.
Tip 5 – Allow your child to assess their own appetite, and help them understand feedings of being full and hunger.
Keep offering – Tiny Tastes
Tiny tastes and repeated exposure to a range of foods is the best way to prevent fussy eating. Keep serving ‘safe’ foods they will eat, and other new foods alongside.
Tip 6 – Keep on offering new foods, and foods you want them to eat, alongside some safe foods.
Is too much milk an issue?
Children do not need to drink multiple glasses of cow’s milk every day, but we can carry on giving them milk out of habit.
High doses of calcium may interfere with iron absorption and fill up little tummies so they are less receptive to food.
Aim for one drink at night if needed as part of a bedtime routine, but your child doesn’t need to drink milk throughout the day past 12 months.
Cut down on their water intake at mealtimes if you think this might affect them.
Tip 7 – Cut down on large drinks of milk if this is filling them up
Basic nutrition for fussy eaters
Children aged 4-9 years old should be getting around 19g protein per day from different sources through the week, younger children a bit less.
It’s important they are also eating vegetables, fruits, getting calcium and healthy fats.
If any one of these types of food are missing entirely you need to look at balancing the diet.
It can be tricky to do this, but speak to a nutritionist for support.
Tip 8 – Consider the balance of food groups between carbs, fats and proteins, as well as variety of vegetables.
Focus on what they eat over a week, not a day
Sometimes children go through periods when they need less food. They may choose only fruit for a day, or go off meat for a month.
If we focus on the longer term nutritional profile it’s not normally as bad as you may fear.
Tip 9 – Look at their food intake through the week, not day by day.
When to go to the doctor
If your child is losing weight, appears unwell, weak or lethargic or other worrying symptoms it’s important to seek medical advice.
If you’re struggling with your child’s eating patterns don’t give up, there is support for your family.
You’re not alone, and it’s not your fault.
There are lots of different approaches to help family mealtimes and your child’s eating, you just need to find the one that works for your family.
Anna is a registered Nutritional Therapist working with parents of children with picking eating behaviour.
Consultations available across the UK online and in Bristol face to face.