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My 10 steps to help fussy little eaters

It’s undeniable there are a number of ways in which food is directly, or indirectly linked with sleep and the possibilities of what I could blog about in relation to children and food is quite literally endless. So I’ll aim to try and devote some blogs over the months in this area - such as starting solids.

But for this first post, I’m going to look at something I think most parents get frustrated with at some point with their child - fussy eating. I’ll explain what fussy eating is and isn’t and give you 10 steps to follow to tackle it.

Before I even start however, it’s safe to say that nothing in this blog constitutes medical advice. So if you’re genuinely concerned about your child’s eating, then please do speak to your usual doctor for help.

Right, here we go...

Fussy eating is totally normal

How many parents have you spoken to who describe their little one as a fussy eater? The truth of the matter is, it’s rare for a child to have any eating pathology - but the vast majority of children DO go through a developmentally normal phase called ‘neophobia’ - quite literally the fear of trying new foods.

This rather annoying (for parents) habit, usually occurs around the 18 month mark when you may notice your little one not accepting new foods.

The good news is, most of the time this is a phase, like a lot of things, they will grow out of it - especially if you try and stay calm and respond to it as best you can (I know how hard that can be, trust me!)

Variety is the spice of life

Another thing you might notice is your little one may suddenly reject a food they’ve repeatedly eaten over weeks, or even months. This is known as a ‘food jag’.

Basically, if you offer the same things day in day out - such as always having toast for breakfast, or pasta for dinner - without offering any variety, your little one may get to a stage where they simply reject the previously loved food completely.

I think we’ve all done this with certain foods. But as the parent in control of what your little one is eating on a daily basis, try and make sure you’re mixing it up so this doesn't happen.

A food jag can be the trigger to a period of fussy eating, so is clearly something best avoided as it could, as you can imagine, have a snowball effect.

Take some deep breaths

Trust me, I know how frustrating it can be to have a meal rejected. Not only have you had to plan a meal, do the shopping, make the food and serve it, for it then to be rejected and probably still have created a load of mess to clean up - but do try and stay calm.

A child rejecting and ultimately not eating a meal may lead you to have even further anxiety that they’re not eating enough. But more often than not periods of fussy eating mean your child is not eating the amount of food you as a parent expect them to. They are probably still getting plenty throughout the course of the day.

If your child is growing well, thriving and is a bundle of energy, you should be confident they’re getting enough nutrients from what they’re eating.

When it’s more than just fussy eating

Having explained how normal fussy eating is, it’s important to recognise that some children do suffer from more disordered eating. Categorised as the following:

  • They’ve never really taken to food

  • They eat less than 20 foods

  • They gag or vomit food beyond the age of a year

  • They struggle with weight loss or weight maintenance

  • There’s been changes to their stool pattern, constipation or diarrhea

  • They have an extremely limited range of foods they’ll eat

  • They exclude entire food groups

  • They suffer with extreme anxiety or fear from eating

If your child is displaying any of the above signs, then it’s more than fussy eating and would be best to see your usual doctor for help.

Tips for fussy eating

Follow my 10 steps below to try and battle through any phases of fussy eating, or even hopefully prevent them from happening in the first place.

Step 1 - Avoid praise for eating

I’m hitting you with the hardest one first (go hard or go home and all that). I sometimes think this is so hardwired into parents that it’s hard to change. It can feel instinctive to say ‘good girl for eating your broccoli.’ But eating is just normal and isn't something which should be praised.

Why I hear you cry?

Well, it might seem encouraging, but praise for eating just teaches your child they can please you, manipulate you, or get your attention by what and how they eat.

If you want to focus on something positive at the mealtime, maybe comment on how good their table manners were, but leave any feelings towards the food being consumed neutral and let them comment on any like or dislike towards it and follow their lead.

Step 2 - Aim for family mealtimes

With lockdown restrictions in place and everyone spending more time together at home over the last year, hopefully there has never been a better time to try and make this absolute win of a step a reality.

Have you noticed how your little one eats so much better when you sit down as a whole family? That’s because there is nothing more beneficial for creating good eating habits than eating as a family.

Try not to make the focus of any family meal all about coaxing your child to eat. Any coaxing can just give your child the attention they are craving, making it a drama. Instead, make it a fun, relaxed place you can all come together, catch up and enjoy a meal.

Step 3 - Get rid of all distractions

I see you with your mobile phone at the table, just checking one last email! But make sure at mealtimes there’s no phones, toys or games out and the TV is off to eliminate distractions.

Step 4 - Introduce new foods slowly

If you want to introduce a new food, try introducing it alongside something you know they already really like and start with a very small portion maybe even on a separate plate. Don’t focus on whether they try it or not, but if they do, you could ask them what they thought of it - make it playful, asking them to score it out of 10! Discovering new foods should be encouraged to be fun, not scary.

Step 5 - Geek out over the food

If you’ve not been having any luck getting your child to eat a certain food, you could ask them about it instead. So next time you’re preparing some tomato for a salad you’re making for yourself, for example, ask your child what colour it is, whether it is hard or soft and what it smells like. Getting them to interact with the food with no pressure to eat it, is a great step towards accepting and then eventually eating the food.

Step 6 - Get your little ones involved

In my opinion, this is one of the best steps as it really does work. You could get your little one to help you write a shopping list (even if they are too young to write), then they could go to the supermarket with you to get the food and even quite little ones can help stir food (as long as it’s not a burn risk) or chop with some assistance.

You could even let them pick something out of a recipe book you could then make together. Getting children to set the table and help serve food helps them feel responsible and important, enforcing a positive attitude towards mealtimes.

Step 7 - Try messy food play

For a lot of younger kids, a rejection of food comes from fear of the unknown - so making it more of a fun thing initially can really help. Try making a tray up with something genuinely yummy to eat, such as custard or jelly, bung in some toys that are easy to clean up afterwards, and let your little one dive in.

The object is most definitely not to encourage them to actually eat the food, but if they do, this is clearly an added bonus. Hopefully once they see food as something fun, it will help alleviate any anxiety they have towards it.

Step 8 - Go easy on the portion sizes

It can be overwhelming for a child to be presented with a large plate of food they have to wade through. You’d be much better off starting with a smaller portion they feel they can get through, they can always have more if they say they're still hungry.

Also think about the sort of plate you’re offering the food on. Some kids can become fussy when certain foods are touching others. But you can buy airplane style plates to help combat this and help you to get creative with your serving options!

Step 9 - Model appropriate rejection of food

We are our children's role models when it comes to eating. So it’s important to demonstrate that it’s ok to not like every food, but that we can have a calm rational response to it. I make it very clear to my 4 year old that I do not like baked beans and will therefore not eat them!

Step 10 - Hang in there and don’t give up

Just because your little one rejects a food once, it doesn’t mean they won't come to like it eventually. So don’t give up after one rejection, keep offering it, with no pressure at another time or in a different form to see if it gets a warmer reception.

TOP TIP: I’m aware you can try all of this and yet sometimes you will still just have a stressful mealtime for whatever reason. If it’s been a complete horror show and everyone has got a bit stressed, remember to do something fun afterwards. It could be as simple as a tickle fight, or even just a lovely cuddle to recenter everyone so they can move on again.

If you’d like some support with any of the above and your little ones sleep at the same time, please do check out my sleep support packages, or hop on your free 15 minute introductory call. Or in the meantime, head over to my Instagram page for all my latest free help and tips.

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