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10 ways to help your fussy eater

Little girl refusing food

Australian child nutrition expert Jennifer Cohen has released 10 helpful tips for parents dealing with children who are fussy eaters. Healthy Food Guide editor Jenny de Montalk takes a closer look.

Many children will go through a phase of fussy eating at some time in their lives, much to the frustration of parents. The good news is, in most cases, picky eating just a passing phase and will not cause any long-term harm to a child’s health.

However, according to Dr Cohen, about 10 per cent of children don’t grow out of fussy eating and, for small number of them, persistent fussy eating can lead to more serious food aversions and phobias.

If fussy eating persists, children also run the risk of nutrient deficiencies, she says.

To help prevent fussy eating becoming a lifelong habit, Dr Cohen shares the following pointers:

5 tips to prevent fussy eating

1 Pureed food is optional: Introduce textured and finger foods to children when they start eating solids – for example, bite-size pieces of soft fruit and vegetables. Or, skip pureed food altogether – omitting or quickly moving on from it will help a child’s development.

2 Never mask flavours: Ensure your child is eating similar flavours to the rest of the family. Introduce your child to a good variety of flavours, and avoid making a savoury, spicy or aromatic food more appealing by adding sweetness.

3 Avoid negativity: Never use negative reinforcement to force your child to eat food they reject.   Negative messaging about food could potentially lead to food aversion. The same tip applies to describing food as ‘healthy/unhealthy’, ‘good/bad’, or using food as a reward.  Demonising one food while it putting another food on a pedestal can be problematic.

4 New experiences are key: Regularly introduce your child to new foods, flavours and textures. Even if they refuse to eat their portion now, they might eventually decide to try those new foods.

5 Intervene early: Never assume your child will grow out of fussy eating. If it’s clearly a problem as soon as they start solid foods, consult a professional to assess for sensory or swallowing issues.

5 ways to break the fussy eating cycle

Dr Cohen also has the following suggestions to help parents break the cycle, if their child has already developed into a fussy eater and is consuming fewer and fewer different foods.

1 Practise the division of responsibility: Your job at mealtimes is to provide the food you want your child to eat and when and where the meal is. It is the child’s job to decide whether they eat or not.

2 Eat together as a family: Study after study shows that when parents eat food in front of their children, their child is more likely to want to eat that food. Eating together as a family is a great way to model good eating habits to fussy eaters. If you are eating, it will also be easier to avoid getting frustrated when they refuse to eat the meal.

3 Provide considered, not catered, meals: Avoid cooking separate meals to cater for your fussy eater but, also, don’t assume your fussy eater is just being difficult if they refuse food.  In some cases, they might be physically unable to eat it. So, ensure each meal has some foods your fussy eater will eat, as well as new foods, in order to regularly expose your child to something different. The same tip applies to lunchboxes.

4 Enjoy family-style meals: New foods presented a fussy eater’s plate can add unwanted stress. Instead, place food in dishes in the centre of the table and let your child choose from that. This is less stressful because it exposes the child to new foods without forcing them to eat them.

5 Allow playing with food:  Allowing them to play with food lets your fussy eater feel comfortable with new foods and takes the stress away. They might even lick their fingers afterwards. Having your fussy eater take a bite of food is the last step in helping them.

For more help with fussy eating, you might like: Fussy eaters: When should you worry? and Fussy eater to foodie: How to turn an unadventurous eater around 

First published: Sep 2020

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