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Why fussy eating happens and how to deal with it

Let me share with you some truths regarding fussy eating so that we can better understand why our kids do it, and then I will share some more practical tips to help them overcome this stage of development.

  1. Fussy eating is a normal part of child development. Read that again, it’s NORMAL. This is how they are learning to explore their environment around them and create some independence in the process.

  2. Toddlers in particular are absolute thinkers, that is, they think in black and white. If they don’t love something they think they hate it. Thats just how they know to express themselves at this stage. So think about that next time they say they hate what you cook, because that’s not exactly what they mean, they probably just mean they don’t love it and that’s ok.

  3. Toddlers are very intuitive when it comes to their appetites. Their body’s know exactly how much food it needs. When they are having a growth spurt they have increased appetites and would eat more, when they are done with the growth spurt their appetite is reduced. This is the perfect food relationship right here that we as adults should take note. As we get older we lose our appetite signal because we allow so many external factors to influence what and how we eat. Forcing a child to eat more that what their appetite is telling them to eat can lead to food relationship issues later in life.

  4. Due to their intuitiveness discussed in the previous point, a healthy child will never intentionally starve themselves. Read that again if you need to.

  5. I’m sure you’ve heard this one, but it needs to be said again as its very important in this context. Kids learn by example. If they see their parents avoiding foods, they will probably avoid it too, and vice versa, if they see their parents trying different foods and being adventurous with foods, possibilities are they will too. So if you are restricting your diet for example, in an effort to lose weight, at least try to avoid talking negatively about food e.g. ‘bread is fattening’, and if you notice your child exhibiting some of these restrictive behaviours, you may need to re-think your strategy for the sake of your child.

  6. Your child has a small stomach so be realistic as to your expectations of how much they should be eating. Think about how much juice or milk you are offering them, if they are constantly drinking through the day, it may be no surprise they are not eating their meals.

  7. Ellyn Satter came up with a concept called ‘division of responsibility’. Basically, the parent is responsible for what, when, where the child eats.The child is responsible for how much and whether they eat. (Google ‘Ellyn Satter division of responsibility’ to read more about this).

  8. Remember your child may not have the same taste preferences as you!

Some practical tips to get you through this stage. Please read this with an open mind, as a parent myself, I know a lot of these are a lot easier said than done, but it does get easier to put into practice.

  1. Eat together as a family. Have set meal times and snack times. Offer your child a variety of foods.

  2. Make mealtimes as relaxed as possible. You can ask your child to try the food, but remain calm if they say no, and simply reply with something along the lines of ‘that’s ok, we’ll try again another day’.

  3. The family meal should consist of at least one thing that your child usually eats, and one thing that your child doesn’t usually eat. Remember, a food needs to be offered about 10-15 times before it gets accepted.

  4. Let them explore the food. From the preparation stage to the eating stage. Don’t get angry at them for being messy.

  5. Remember how we said fussy eating is about independence? Well, give them independence by giving them choices, e.g. ‘do you want broccoli or carrot today?’

  6. If your child doesn’t eat, take the plate away, and offer it again later. Wait until the next planned meal or snack before offering them something different.

  7. Focus as much as possible on any positives and praise your child at least once every meal (even if its ‘good chewing’). Highlighting negative behaviour (e.g. you haven’t eaten any veggies) can sometimes lead to it being repeated.

  8. Do not bribe fussy eaters with dessert. This gives them the message that eating healthy is a chore.

When to seek help?

Here are just some points to consider whether or not you should seek medical and/or dietetic advice regarding your child’s fussy eating:

  1. If they are only eating a very small range of foods, and possibly even avoiding a whole food group. For example if they are eating no vegetables at all.

  2. If your child is constantly getting sick.

  3. If they seem to be lethargic and not as active as other kids their age.

  4. If they are not meeting their developmental milestones.

  5. If they are losing weight, or dropping percentiles on the growth charts.

Let me end with this. If you only take away one thing from this post, let it be this:

Do not give in to your child’s fussiness. By doing so, you are essentially reinforcing this behaviour and they will soon learn that you will cater to them if they refuse a meal.

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