There isn’t one way of dealing with a fussy eater, and your strategy should depend on your child’s temperament and the reasons why his eating habits have changed. By Ashleigh Caradas
According to Lindsay Archibald-Durham, a paediatric dietitian working at the Wits University Donald Gordon Medical Centre in Johannesburg, “Fussy eating is a common developmental stage. Between the ages of 12 and 36 months, it’s normal for toddlers to start refusing foods they’ve previously eaten, or for them to become neophobic (scared of new foods offered). How you deal with it determines how long this stage continues.
This is confirmed by Liane, who has a special interest in eating-related behaviours. She maintains that, “Parents will try every negotiation strategy in the book. They may promise their child that if they eat what they are being offered, they will be rewarded with all forms of sugar and treats. However, this soon begins to reinforce bad habits in the child and an expectation that so-called “good” eating should be rewarded. A power struggle may ensue and a child may stubbornly refuse to eat what they are given in order to assert themselves.
Lindsay adds that, “When parents give a lot of attention, even negative attention, to these behaviours, it serves to reinforce the fussy eating. Likewise, so does offering favoured alternatives or cooking separate foods for the fussy child.” Identifying where, and why, your child is becoming finicky can help pinpoint strategies to help temp your tot.
Here are some of the most common types of picky eaters and strategies to help you deal with with them.
Children learn from example, and if your baby sees you eating junk food and sweets, it is likely that he will want to do the same. Weaning your child onto healthy family foods in a controlled eating setting, like a dinner table, will help reinforce good habits. Allowing your child to see you enjoying wholesome foods at the table will help ensure that he does the same. According to Lindsay, “Children learn by copying you, their siblings, their grandparents and friends. Try to eat with your child as often as possible so you can set a good example. Offer the same foods as the rest of the family – don’t prepare separate meals.”
Some children might start out eating well by accepting weaning foods like vegetable purées with great zeal. You’ll be feeling relieved and proud, when suddenly, it all stops. “Picky eating can be the result of a child starting to show their independence and food is one area they can easily take control of,” explains Lindsay.
The refusal in this case has nothing to do with the food itself. This style of picky eating is often just temporary and parents should know that they can relax and let their child be for that short time. It might be a good idea to introduce a variety of foods at each meal and allow your picky eater to make their own decisions as to which foods they feel like eating. This helps to reinforce your child’s sense of independence. “Encourage his need for independence by encouraging him to self-feed and help shop for, and prepare, foods,” advises Lindsay.
“Parents are often filled with anxiety that their child is not getting enough nutritious foods in his diet. Out of desperation, and with the best intentions, they may force new tastes and textures on these young palates. The young connoisseurs may react adversely, even spitting the food out,” explains Liane. Spitting is often related to a sensory issue, where the child is rejecting the food due to a texture, smell or strong taste that he finds displeasing.
For sensory kids, the best solution is to make the eating environment and experience as relaxed as possible. You can also talk to your child about the sensations; for example, warm, cold, or crunchy, to help him better understand the sensations he is dealing with.
Most babies are more accepting of sweet foods. Roasting vegetables brings out their sweetness and adding a little lemon juice can help to mask the bitterness. It can take some time for your child to get used to the taste of certain foods and for his palate to become more refined. It’s all very well trying to get your child to eat just one bit of broccoli, but the goal is to get him to like broccoli in the long-term.
“Always offer a food on the plate that you know your child will eat, and have the often-rejected foods as options. Without force, try coaxing your child into trying new, or previously rejected, foods. Encourage him to take a bite, or even a lick, of the new food and offer praise,” suggests Lindsay.
Children are sometimes simply not enamoured with food in general. Making the food look better on the plate by making shapes or images out of it can really help make food more fun and appealing. Once your little one can understand, it’s best to punt food in a more interesting manner, for example, calling broccoli “little trees” or carrots “X-ray vision carrots” can help your child associate food with something more fun.
Xanet is an award-winning journalist and Living and Loving’s digital editor. She has won numerous awards for her health and wellness articles and was a finalist for the Discovery Journalist of the Year in 2009 and again in 2011 for the Discovery Best Health Consumer Reporting and Feature Writing category. She is responsible for our online presence across social media channels and makes sure our moms have fresh and interesting articles to read every day. Learn more about Xanet Scheepers.