The subject of children’s eating habits is often discussed and often causes debate and emotion. To take some of the angst away, it’s good to have a look at some of the reasons why children may be fussy with their food, and come up with reasonable boundaries or rules that can be implemented to assist. Here are some facts and some tips that will hopefully bring some joy back to mealtimes for both the children and the grown-ups caring for them!
First, some facts about why children are sometimes fussy about their food:
- For some children, life is simply too exciting to spend much time thinking about food or even to eat.
- Children’s appetites are influenced by their growth cycles. It’s totally normal for children to be ravenous on one day, and have no appetite the next day for about the first five years of life. In fact, even babies can have fluctuating appetites.
- Children prefer different foods to adults, as they have a different palate and their ability to taste different foods is still developing.
- Food can be a vehicle for testing boundaries and acceptable behaviour. Some children may enjoy experimenting with being strong willed and making their own decisions about food as part of their intellectual, emotional and social development.
- Similarly, sometimes children will react to certain foods or refuse them directly to see what your reaction will be. This behaviour is partly a display of independence.
Establishing good habits
Once we understand a little more about why children may be picky with their food, we can try to encourage good habits and routines. For example, try to keep meals and snacks at regular times each day. If a child isn’t hungry between meals or at meal times, you may consider eliminating snacks entirely.
Set limits for meal times and make the child understand that once mealtime has finished there will be no other food on offer. Offering bribes is not recommended, e.g. “If you eat your vegetables, you can have a piece of chocolate.”
At the end of mealtime, remove the plate and stay strong in your resolve!
If a child appears to be famished at mealtime, there is nothing wrong with encouraging her or his appetite by offering a little more food. Likewise, if there is very little interest in the meal, it’s okay if she or he doesn’t eat so much. The child might be hungry again at the next mealtime.
It’s important to not make an issue about a child’s fussy eating. Try to stay calm and limit your emotional reaction to the situation. Try also not to talk about it too much, as this may also reward the child if they are seeking a reaction or testing boundaries.
Make mealtimes a happy time
A child’s emotional response to eating can be tied in with feelings towards the environment they’re in when they are eating. You can make the atmosphere more pleasant and enjoyable by doing the following:
- Promote mealtimes as a social and upbeat event. Try not to scold the child at this time or worry about little things going wrong, such as spills and food on the floor.
- Give positive feedback regarding good behaviour and when the child eats well.
- Try and make food fun – you can cut food into unusual shapes, arrange in patterns or when appropriate, let the child participate in preparing the meal.
- Enjoy your own food. If a child sees you enjoying your food she or he will be more likely to do the same.
Minimising distraction before and during mealtime
For some children, particularly toddlers, it’s very difficult to sit still at meal times. If this is the case, try and do something quiet and relaxing before mealtime. A few minutes of a relaxing activity may be just the ticket; even the act of washing and drying hands can help calm and slow the child down.
Turn off any stimulating devices such as iPads, exciting music or television and make sure mealtime is a time of relaxation and social interaction.
Support the child’s desire for independence
Becoming independent is a natural part of a child’s development and they will want to express this through food. Let the child make choices by offering a couple of different varieties of healthy food. Make sure you keep the selections down to just two or three items though, as too many may baffle the child and make the decision tricky
Increasing the variety of foods
- Don’t overwhelm a child by giving her or him too much food. Place only a small amount of each food on the plate, and introduce new foods along with some that are already familiar.
- Sometimes, repetition is key: you may have to offer a particular food 10-15 times before a child accepts and starts to like it.
- If children are around others at meal times, create a sharing environment with plates of food. If children see others enjoying particular food types, they are more inclined to try it themselves.
As challenging as it may sometimes to deal with a fussy eater, try to stay calm and realise that in most cases these problems will resolve over time. Your own anxiety may distress the child, or make the youngster realise that food refusal or fussiness can be a powerful behavioural weapon.
Sage Institute of Child Care – it’s more than a job, it’s a rewarding career
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