You’ve spent hours slaving away in the kitchen, perfected the presentation and thought carefully about what to make, only for your child to reject the meal you’ve put in front of them. This is a scenario familiar to most parents and it can be incredibly frustrating when it happens time and time again.
Food refusal is actually a normal part of a child’s development. You may have had a baby that ate everything only to find that once they got to their first birthday, they started to reject new food as well as things that they had previously eaten. Learning which foods are safe to eat is something humans have evolved to do. Fear of new or unfamiliar foods is known as food neophobia and typically peaks around 2 years of age. How you respond to food refusal can make a huge difference in terms of setting up healthy food habits and managing fussy eating. Whatever their age, if you are struggling with your child’s fussiness around food, try our top tips…
Children learn to like what is familiar to them. A trap many parents fall into is to stop offering the things that their child doesn’t eat, but this only reinforces to the child that ‘they don’t like’ these things. Research has shown that children may need to be offered something 15 times before they will accept it.
Just like sleep, having a good routine with food can make a big difference. Children tend to find it easier to eat when they know what to expect with predictable meal times. This can also help manage snacking….
If a child is able to graze through the day then they are unlikely to want to eat their dinner. Snacks also tend to be less nutritious. For this reason; we recommend ‘two snacks max’ – that’s one mid-morning and one mid-afternoon. Snacks can also be a good opportunity to encourage new things. Chances are that if they’re hungry, they’ll eat it.
For babies and toddlers, messy play is a great way to expose children to food in a fun way and can help build positive associations. For older children, involving them with food in different forms can make food interesting and fun. This could be growing your own, cooking together as well as giving them some control over what meals to make (check out some healthy family favourites here). The more involved your child is in the process, the more likely they are to eat the finished product!
Many parents are surprised to see the recommended portion sizes for children, your child may not need as much as you are serving. For fussy children it is generally a good idea to serve a small amount of food – they can always have seconds if they want to. You may be setting unrealistic expectations by offering large portions.
As tempting as it may be to cook a different meal that you know your child will eat, don’t. If the meal you’ve cooked is refused and your child knows they can hold out for something better then they will
Minimise the amount of unhealthy food in the house and talk to your child about why we all need to eat well for our bodies to work well. If your child knows that there’s biscuits in the cupboard it’s likely that they’ll want to choose them over a piece of fruit. Making healthy options familiar and normal will increase the likelihood of your child eating these things.
Bribery may work in the short term; but telling your child that they can only have their pudding once they’ve eating their vegetables actually reinforces to a child that the vegetables are an undesirable thing to be eating (i.e. only to get something better). This isn’t limited to mealtimes; we live in a society where food is often used as a reward. This again reinforces that unhealthy foods are more desirable (we don’t tend to say -if you’re on your best behaviour at the supermarket then you can have some broccoli!). Try thinking of non–food rewards for these occasions.
Children learn by the example you set. If you tend to be a picky eater or don’t eat together then your child will not see that it’s normal to eat a varied diet. Research shows that children eat more fruit and vegetables when their parents’ do. Try not to make negative comments about food, if you hate mushrooms your child doesn’t need to hear about it! Children will also eat better when their peers do, so you might find inviting friends over for dinner (but not the fussy ones!) helps.
After 6 months milk alone isn’t enough to provide your child with all the nutrients they need and over reliance on milk as your child gets older (particularly after one year) can lead to nutrition deficiencies. Some children much prefer to drink than eat and if they are having filling drinks – such as milk and smoothies – there probably won’t be much room left for food. Limiting the amount of drinks (other than water) your child has should encourage their appetite and teach them that if they are hungry that they need to eat.
How food is prepared affects its taste, just because your child doesn’t like carrots when they’re cooked doesn’t mean they won’t eat them raw. Experiment with cooking methods too – vegetables tend to taste sweeter when stir fried compared to when boiled. Adding extra vegetables into meals can also help rather than just serving them on the side.
Easier said than done, but try to stay calm at meal times. A child who feels stressed is less likely to eat and a child who is pressurised to eat is more likely to develop an unhealthy relationship with food. You should encourage them to try new things but accept it if they don’t want to. Simply remove the food without making a big deal of it. It may also be helpful to think of the balance of your child’s diet over a whole week rather than what they have (or haven’t) eaten at one particular meal time.
BeeZee Bodies qualified nutritionists are here to help families live healthier lifestyles and we run a variety of programmes aimed at different age groups.
HENRY (Health, Exercise and Nutrition for the Really Young) is designed for 0-5 year olds and tackles topics like fussy eating and everyday activities and play, while BeeZee Families helps 5-15 year olds and their whole families make healthy habits together.