Is the dinner table a battleground of tears, tantrums and threats? Are you at your wits' end to know how to get your fussy child to eat?
From an eighteen month old baby still on four bottles of milk a day to children who eat Vegemite sandwiches for every meal, Accredited Practising Dietician and Dietitians Association of Australia spokesperson, Kate Di Prima, has seen every kind of fussy eater. Her most extreme case was an eight year old girl who had to be picked up from a school camp. "She flatly refused to eat anything because all she ate was chicken nuggets and chips and she wasn't allowed to take those to camp, so she got herself into such a state and had to be brought home".
According to Di Prima, who is also the co-author of More Peas Please, Solutions For Feeding Fussy Eaters, increasing numbers of children with feeding problems, food fussiness or food group avoidance are seeing dieticians and other specialists.
"There doesn't appear to be any clinical evidence as to why," she says, "but the possible reasons may be many childrens' taste buds are corrupted by salt and sugar early, mixed messages for parents as to what to do, missing cues as to when to introduce and change textures of solids, busy lifestyles leading to disrupted routines and many people having an input into a child's eating".
Between the age of twelve months and two and a half years is the age of food fussiness, she explains. Eating problems tend to escalate further when parents don't take a tough stance. Parents "want harmony in the house and across the family" she says "so one of the mistakes they make is providing multiple meals and snacks to tempt their child to eat. For a young child this is a learning curve so they think all I have to say is no and I'll eventually get what I want".
Child food and nutrition expert and author Annabel Karmel agrees. "Often parents give in and let their children have the three or four dishes they know are going to be eaten, just to get them to eat. This restricted diet is effectively encouraging their fussy eating. A child will come to associate kicking up a fuss with getting food they want. It is better to stop giving these few foods and if your child is adamant he wont eat anything else you will soon find that once he is hungry, he will become a lot less fussy and in that way you can break the pattern and give your child the variety of foods he needs to develop properly."
We asked four experts to give their top tips for trying to get a fussy eater back on track.
Child and adolescent psychologist, Clare Rowe:
- Don't negotiate, reason or beg your child to eat their food. Children learn quickly that parents can not physically make them eat. What, when and where children eat is determined by parents and as obvious as this sounds sometimes parents need to be reminded of it.
- Don't become a 'meal coach'. Usually parents try and 'sell' their children the benefits of eating, eg, carrots are good for your eyesight. Then it moves to coaxing and bribing (offering dessert) and then guilt (think of all the children starving) and finally threats (you will not be watching any tv this week). These strategies do not work. Eventually most parents cave in to the demands of their child.
- Stay neutral and ignore tantrums. A child will only eat chicken nuggets, hot dogs and unhealthy foods if they are available. Parents need to remember that hunger is motivating. It is much better for a child to go hungry for a few hours or skip a meal — this will not hurt them — rather than maintain disruptive habits.
- When trying to introduce a new food, don't give up. Often a child needs to be presented with a food 5 - 10 times before they will try it.
- Get your kids into the kitchen. Most children adore cooking and it's amazing how being involved in the planning and preparing of a meal can stimulate a child's appetite.
- Give small portions. It's not good to overload your child's plate. Attractive presentation can make the difference between your child accepting and refusing food. Whole fruit may well not get eaten but fresh fruit threaded onto skewers or straws immediately becomes more appealing.
- Make your own healthy junk food if your child is set on fast food. For example, burgers made from lean minced meat, fish fingers made from fish fillets coated in seasoned flour, egg and crushed cornflakes and ice lollies made by blending fresh fruit like watermelon and strawberry.
Eve Reed, Accredited Practising Dietitian specialising in child and family nutrition:
- Don't use distractions such as television, dvds, games or toys to distract the child while you spoon in the food.
- Offer food at mealtimes, breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner. Don't give food between these times, even if they ask for it. If they are eating or snacking in between these mealtimes they are less likely to be hungry when you want them to eat.
- Eat with your child. Offer them the same food as you are eating. Include plain rice, pasta or bread at dinner so that if they don't want to eat anything else, there is something they will eat if they are hungry.
Kate Di Prima:
- If a meal is refused and the child is asking for something else, or worse, having a tantrum, then the meal needs to be removed and the child offered water to calm them down. If the child asks for food, return a half-portion of the meal (reheat if cold, and cut into small, bite-sized pieces). Never offer a new meal or a bottle or cup of milk, as this is a reward for their behavior (the wrong learning curve). The cycle will continue the next day and beyond if not broken.
- Don't give in. Young children learn through routine and set rules and eventually learn that they have to sit at the table to eat, or try at least one piece of fruit. Children will keep pushing the boundaries if they know you may give in. Compare eating to wearing a seat belt or a hat in the sun. Accept that it is a set rule.
However, adds Clare Rowe, "if the child is losing weight, or if the difficult behaviour is chronic then I advise parents to consult their paediatrician."
Annabel Karmel's bestselling book 'Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner' is available from Ebury Press.
Kate Di Primo's More Peas Please is available from Allen and Unwin.
Eve Reed's practice is at www.familyfoodworks.com.au.
Clare Rowe is at Sydney South Child Psychology - www.sydneychildpsychology.com.