Written and Researched by Miss Nancy
As part of our ongoing professional development at DMW Engadine our educators have been learning about and planning strategies for fussy eaters. We wanted to take this opportunity to share some key strategies we have been implementing at the service to support memorable and meaningful mealtimes and minimise stress or anxiety for our fussy eaters.
Mealtimes are such an important part of our days as human beings. They are so much more than the food we eat. Mealtimes are opportunities for us to gather with our loved ones (whether friends or family) share stories, laugh, connect, and belong. Our aim at DMW is to ensure that children’s experience of mealtimes is engaging, stress-free and a time our children will treasure, remember, and look forward to.
It is also crucial to understand and remind ourselves that, "Eating is one of the most complex tasks that requires every one of your organs to function correctly. It involves 6 cranial nerves and 26 muscles. It is the only task that children do that involves all of their 8 sensory systems” (Susanne Evans Morris, Feeding Speech Pathology expert in the US). So remember to be patient and give your child time to explore new foods and work out how to chew, manipulate and swallow them.
Strategies to Support Fussy Eaters at DMW!
So, what are fussy eaters? “Fussy/picky eating and food neophobia are common behaviours throughout childhood. Fussy eating has been defined as the consumption of an inadequate variety or quantity of foods through the rejection of a substantial amount of both familiar and unfamiliar foods” (Wolstenholme et al, 2020, p 2).
Put simply, fussy eaters will eat at least 30 different foods, they tolerate new foods on their plate, they usually eat at least one food from most food groups and sometimes eat the same meal as their family.
We have begun implementing the following strategies at DMW to support fussy eaters and create more engaging mealtimes. These strategies were shared in a professional development session our staff attended, hosted by, Valerie Gent & Debbie Alvarez who own and operate Feeding Therapy Australia. The workshop provided our educators with strategies to understand and support fussy eaters.
We are ensuring our mealtimes remain pressure free. It is important to recognise and understand that pressure can be positive or negative. It can be something as simple as a facial reaction or praise, commenting on the quantity of food the child has eaten or asking them to try something. Research suggests that negative or non-responsive feeding practices (such as pressuring children to eat and using food as a reward for behaviour) are associated with higher levels of fussy eating (Wolstenholme et al, 2020, p 2).
We have been changing the focus of our mealtime conversations. While there is always lots of conversations at the DMW meal tables, we have introduced new mealtime conversation cards allowing the children to select a ‘topic’ for the mealtime conversation (such as superheros, favourite characters, books, movies, singing songs, talking about the children’s weekend and many more). We have found that some of our fussy eaters are less reluctant to join our mealtimes and some are starting to show signs of enjoyment at mealtimes. We feel changing the focus of the conversation also promotes language development, meaningful social interactions, and engagement on a more personal level, while also supporting our fussy eaters by removing the ‘pressure’ of any food related conversation that may occur.
We have reintroduced more gardening experiences (such as planting and watering) as well as some of our favourite cooking experiences, such as making pizzas. These experiences were a prominent part of our Intergenerational Program with Moran Aged Care, however, with that remaining on hold for now due to Covid, we are finding other creative ways for our children to learn about and interact with food away from the meal table.
Our educators continue to sit with the children and join them in sharing a meal. This simple action of an adult modelling eating a variety of healthy foods in a neutral way is one of the most powerful and effective ways to support and encourage fussy eaters without saying a word.
Strategies to Support Fussy Eaters at Home! We encourage you to trial some of the strategies we are using at the service at home. We know how tempting it can be to encourage your child to have another bite or celebrate them trying something new, but we are challenging you to have pressure free meals at home. That means inviting your child to serve themselves and decide how much they need to eat. This also means resisting the temptation to talk about the food being served, the quantity of food your child is eating or offering any rewards for eating. Rather talk about your child’s day or an imaginative topic such as your favourite superhero or favourite movie or character. Try this every day for every mealtime you have together for a week or two and see if you notice any changes or improvements in your child’s motivation, interest, or food intake.
Never underestimate how precious the memories are that we create over mealtimes, whether the meals be simple ones we whip up in a hurry or on the go or the fancy ones we spend hours creating and perfecting. Remember that as adults whether parents or carers, our responsibility is to provide healthy meals for children to eat and we need to empower children with the decision of how much they will eat.
References Gent, V., & Alvarez, D. Fussy Eating in Childcare (2021) feedingtherapyaustralia.com.au Wolstenholme, H., Kelly, C., Hennessy, M. et al. Childhood fussy/picky eating behaviours: a systematic review and synthesis of qualitative studies. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 17, 2 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-019-0899-x