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Fussy eating is a normal part of childhood. This behaviour generally starts in toddlerhood, when the taste, shape, colour or texture of particular foods are new and not necessarily exciting! They’re also developing their personality, boundaries and experiencing asserting their independence.
This is often a concern for parents as it can make meal times incredibly stressful, limit social opportunities, and there is an expectation for children to eat a healthy diet. Dietary habits are shaped at a young age and maintained during later life, so establishing these habits early on sets your child up for life.
Most children will get less fussy as they get older. Sometimes it takes a bit longer, and you might need to implement some dedicated strategies to assist your child in expanding their pallet. If your child has been eating a limited range of foods for a longer period of time, it can be a slow process to introduce new foods again as their palette has adapted to these ‘safe’ foods.
Restricting eating (e.g. not allowing a snack) or forcing a child to eat has been shown to impact eating behaviours negatively. This can increase the consumption of restricted foods, increase food avoidance and reduce the consumption of previously safe foods.
So what can you do instead? Here are some strategies to improve your child’s eating behaviour:
Introducing a new food with a portion of safe food is a great way to encourage your child to try something new. They don’t have to eat it – it can be enough for them to touch it with their hands, smell it, or touch it to their lips.
By only purchasing healthy foods and avoiding unhealthy stores and fast food options, it encourages the consumption of healthy foods for the whole family. When there are only healthy options in the house, the child can feel like they have control over their choices whilst still enjoying healthy foods.
Using food as a reward makes some food appear superior compared to others. We want to encourage a relationship with food where your child is able to nourish their body with the nutrients they need where they are able to self-regulate and and recognise the sense of feeling full. This will allow them to manage their own food choices when they have access to the big wide world of food!
Having meals together as a family is a great way to model a healthy relationship with food. It’s really important for your children to see you eating, trying new food and expressing yourself when you don’t like something. Family meals also provide an opportunity for connection and socialisation, so take this moment to talk about your day.
During meal times, it’s important to give children a sense of control over how much they would like to eat and what goes on their plates. This doesn’t mean they run the show – you still control what gets served! But it’s okay to make reasonable allowances as you would for an adult.
There are a variety of books and games available that talk about food and how our body works (like Whose Poop Is That?). By increasing your child’s food knowledge, they are more likely to want to try new foods because they already have some knowledge about them. This may extend to role-playing meal times with toys and modelling healthy eating behaviours.
Before the age of 10, children tend to interpret nutrition education as a push for them to eat more which can be met with resistance, so keep the conversation about how the food is grown, where it comes from, what colour it is and if it’s soft or crunchy rather than about the nutritional content and why they should eat it.
If you’re interested in taking any supplements, please discuss this with your practitioner to ensure you’re taking the correct dose and form for you. This article is not intended to be medical advice and is purely for education purposes.