My top tips for fussy eaters
Many of my little patients can be resistant to trying new foods, particularly the green ones! Know that fussiness in children can be quite normal, and sometimes it can take up to 20 times of seeing a new food for a child to try it, and then even longer before their taste buds can appreciate, or even tolerate it.
Sometimes fussy eating is caused by nutritional deficiencies such as zinc, which is involved in many stages of the digestive process, including the ability to taste food normally, and iron deficiency, which will usually be accompanied by unusual cravings such as wanting to eat ice or sand, or loving the smell of nail polish or petrol. In these cases, obviously a multivitamin is warranted, and can make the world of difference if you persist with supplementation for at least a few months. Another great tip for reversing iron deficiency, is purchasing an iron fish from www.ironfish.com and cooking meals with it. See their website for more details.
Purchasing a multivitamin also gives you peace of mind that your child is getting all of the vitamins and minerals they require for normal growth and development, while you address the underlying cause of their fussiness. Be aware that many supplements on the retail market are full of less than ideal ingredients such as artificial colours, flavours and preservatives. These may help your child take the vitamin supplement, as they can improve the taste, however artificial additives have been linked to many different adverse health outcomes, such as eczema, asthma, hyperactivity and some are even suspected carcinogens! Ask me for some tips for getting your child to take their supplements if you’re struggling.
Apart from the nutritional considerations, there are a number of behavioural considerations that you can be tackled over time to help increase your child’s dietary variety and willingness to try new food. Systematically work your way through this list until you find the combination of strategies that work for your little one.
Limit highly processed or packaged foods. Processed foods contain ingredients such as the perfect balance of sugar, salt and fat – which food manufacturers call the “bliss point” which makes processed foods highly addictive. They are highly palatable, and therefore make it difficult for your child to appreciate the subtler flavours of vegetables. If your child is already used to eating these highly palatable foods, it will take some time to get their palate attuned to milder flavours, but rest assured that with persistence it will happen.
Lead by example. Research shows that up to 70% of our fussy child’s eating behaviours comes from them mimicking a parent or loved one. This can be mum or dad, or can in some cases be a sibling, which can make it challenging. Keep offering healthy food options and modelling healthy eating behaviours.
Persistence! This is key. As kids can resist change and not love new foods, it is important that we as parents persist with as little drama as possible. Try not to turn food into a battle ground as no one wins in this scenario, and it can become a power play. Keep offering healthy family foods (try not to make different meals for everyone as this makes meal times much less enjoyable for the person preparing the meals) and if they don’t eat it, pack it away without drama and at their next meal, offer the next family meal. Hunger is the biggest driver of children trying new foods. Your child wont starve by missing a meal, but they can get malnourished if all they want to eat is white pasta with butter and we allow it for long periods of time. Malnourishment then creates a vicious cycle of nutritional deficiencies, which compound the fussy eating. Persistence pays off, but can take YEARS of you, the parent sticking to your guns. Keep at it. Parenting can be tough at times, but it is the role we signed on for.
Limit snacking between meals, as kids can easily fill up on snack foods, then not be hungry enough to eat proper family meals which are the main opportunities they have to eat healthy foods. Even too much fruit or cheese and crackers between meals can become an issue. Alternatively, if your child is a grazer, ensure they are snacking on healthy snacks such as hummus or guacamole and veggie sticks or a boiled egg or a small tin of tuna with some cut up tomato and cucumber. If they say no to these types of foods as their snacks, are they really hungry, or is it in fact a craving? Cravings are commonly caused by various nutritional deficiencies or can be emotional eating. A multivitamin can help with both of these considerations.
Eat meals as a family at set times, as this will train them to get hungry and expect food at certain times. It also allows them to see you modelling healthy eating, and over the years, it can lead to enjoyable family bonding time. Minimize distractions at the table. No TV or devices which encourage mindless eating, rather than mindful eating practices. TV can also be a source of fast food advertising, which will make your job more difficult. Also, if your child finishes their meal quickly, or won’t eat, encourage them to sit with the family at the designated meal time so they benefit from the modelling of the rest of the family enjoying a healthy meal. Try to do this without drama.
Set a time limit on a meal. Kids can sit pushing food around their plate for hours. When the family have finished, give your fussy eater 5 more minutes, then pack the meal away without fuss.
Get your kids to help with grocery shopping and meal preparation. If they’re little, it can be a pretend game of them cutting up toy fruits and vegetables while you prepare the family meal, or it could be them washing, selecting or stirring the meal. Learning to cook is a lifelong skill for kids, so getting them in the kitchen is invaluable. Growing your own vegetables can be a highly motivating force for positive change. Many school are incorporating gardens into the curriculum to encourage healthy eating. A veggie patch can be as big or small as you wish, from planter boxes to a couple of pots growing culinary herbs.
Try not to use junk food as a reward, as this reinforces comfort eating later in life.
Don’t force your kids to eat if they’re not hungry. Allow them to control how much they eat. Serve smaller portions of necessary. If they have absolutely no appetite, this is a sign of zinc or digestive enzyme deficiency, which will need an active intervention such as supplementation.
Serve new foods alongside favourite foods and discuss the health benefits associated with certain foods, such as this food makes your muscles grow which will help you be strong at your martial arts classes. Also, don’t overwhelm with choice. Only serve a couple of options at a time, and only one new food at a time. Praise them for trying new foods. You may decide to start a sticker chart or reward system for when they try or eat their vegetables. Just ensure the rewards are non-food items.
Serve new foods early in the meal, when they are most hungry and more likely to try it.
Ensure you get variety into the diet, as we all have our own personal preferences, and may enjoy our broccoli served in a different way.
Get creative. Make meals look appealing. Cut food into shapes with cookie cutters, serve veggies with dips or sauces they may like or hide vegetables in sauces. I blend vegetables into bolognaise sauce, add mild green leafy vegetables into tasty smoothies, bake zucchini into bread, bake sweet potato into cakes, add pumpkin into pancakes, carrots in muffins, cauliflower hides well in white sauce or hash browns. Make oven baked chips alongside sweet potato or parsnip chips. Serve zucchini, carrot or sweet potato noodles mixed in with long pasta and call it rainbow pasta. There are many ways to get your kids to eat hidden vegetables and a great book called Veggie Smugglers with lots of creative recipes if you need inspiration.
Try not to stress too much about it. If your child is growing, gaining weight appropriately and is healthy, they may actually be getting adequate nutrition for their needs.
I hope these tips help you and your fussy eater make peace with meal times.
Yours in health,