In early childhood - and beyond - it can be difficult to encourage your child to try a wide range of foods with different colours, flavours and textures. At DMW, we use a range of strategies to help children try different foods, make their own choices at meal times and understand the importance of a varied, balanced diet.
Why is my child a fussy eater?
It’s normal for children to be fussy eaters – that is, to not like the taste, shape, colour or texture of particular foods. It’s also normal for children to like something one day but dislike it the next, to refuse new foods, and to eat more or less from day to day. This all happens because fussy eating is part of children’s development. It’s a way of exploring their environment and asserting their independence. And it’s also because children’s appetites go up and down depending on how much they’re growing and how active they are. (raisingchildren.net.au)
At DMW, mealtimes are a fantastic learning opportunity and a meaningful part of our daily routine. Our educators focus on creating a calm, relaxing and pleasant atmosphere for the children, where they can practise their independence and enjoy meals at their own pace. We practise progressive mealtimes - allowing the children to come and eat within a window (such as 11:15am - 11:45am) rather than forcing them to all sit and eat at the same time - which allows children to feel comfortable and happy!
Our educators maximise interactions during mealtimes and talk with the children about the types of foods they're eating, the different textures and colours, the taste and smell of the food and how we can fuel our bodies with healthy, nutritious, real foods. We support children to try new things and also offer alternatives for children who prefer plain foods, gradually introducing more and more variety.
What can I do at home?
Here are some of the strategies we use at the service, plus some ideas for introducing new foods at home:
Make mealtimes happy, regular and social occasions. Try not to worry about spilled drinks or food on the floor.
Start small. For example, start by asking your child to lick a piece of food, and work up to trying a mouthful. Praise your child for these small attempts!
Never force your child to try a food. They will have lots of other opportunities to try new foods.
If your child is fussing about food, ignore it as much as you can. Giving fussy eating lots of attention can sometimes encourage children to keep behaving this way.
Make healthy foods fun – for example, cut sandwiches into interesting shapes, or let your child help prepare a salad or whisk eggs for an omelette.
Turn the TV off during mealtimes and focus on meaningful conversations as a family.
Set a time limit of about 20 minutes for meals. Anything that goes on too long isn’t fun. If your child hasn’t eaten the food in this time, take it away and don’t offer your child more food until the next planned meal or snack time.
Sometimes toddlers are too distracted to sit at the family table for a meal. If this sounds like your child, try having quiet time before meals so they can calm down before eating. Even the ritual of hand-washing can help!
Giving fussy eaters independence with food
It can be a good idea to support your child’s need for independence when it comes to food. Provide healthy food options for your child, but let your child decide how much they'll eat.
You could also try letting your child make choices within a range of healthy foods - just limit the options to 2-3 things, so your child doesn’t get too confused or overwhelmed to eat. For example, instead of asking your child to pick what they want from the fridge, you could ask, ‘Would you like grapes or carrot sticks?’
Another tip is getting your child involved in preparing family meals. For example, your child could help out with:
picking a recipe
getting food out of the fridge
washing fruit and veggies
tossing a salad
planting and picking herbs at home
They'll feel proud of helping and be more likely to eat something they have helped to make! Sometimes your child will refuse food just because it gets an interesting reaction from you. If children refuse to eat a food, it doesn’t necessarily mean they dislike it – after all, they might not have even tasted it yet. They might just be putting on a show of independence to see what you’ll do. Try to stay calm when this happens.
Introducing new foods to fussy eaters
If you have a fussy eater who doesn’t like trying new food, here are some tips that might help:
Keep offering new foods at different times. Your child will probably try them and eventually like them – but they might have to see a food on the plate 10-15 times before they even try to taste it.
Put a small amount of new food on the plate with familiar food your child already likes – for example, a piece of broccoli alongside some mashed potato. Encourage your child to touch, smell or lick the new food.
Make food attractive. Offer your child a variety of different colours, shapes and sizes, and let your child choose what he eats from the plate.
Serve your child the same meal the family is eating but in a portion size your child will eat. If your child doesn’t eat it, say something like, ‘Try it, it’s yummy’. If she still doesn’t want it, calmly say, ‘OK, we’ll try it another time when you’re hungry’.
Offer different foods from each of the five healthy food groups.
Try not to let your child fill up on drinks or ‘sometimes’ foods before introducing new foods. They're more likely to try food if they're hungry and don't have the option of something else to eat.
When possible, look for opportunities for your child to share meals and snacks with other children – they might be more willing to try a food if other children are tucking in.
Facts about fussy eating
Children’s appetites are affected by their growth cycles. Even babies have changing appetites. At 1-6 years, it’s common for children to be really hungry one day and picky the next.
Children have different taste preferences to adults.
Life is too exciting for children sometimes, and they’re too busy exploring the world around them to spend time eating.
Children learn by testing the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. They can be very strong willed when it comes to making decisions about food (to eat or not to eat, and what to eat). It’s all part of their social, intellectual and emotional development.
If your child is healthy and has enough energy to play, learn and explore, they're probably eating enough. But if your child eats only a very small range of foods or won't eat entire food groups for a long time, it's a good idea to see your GP, a dietician or an occupational therapist. We'll also let you know if we have any concerns about your child's food intake and work with you to develop strategies that meet your child's needs.