Are you trying to cope with a fussy eater? Although there are genuine allergies out there, frankly a lot of the problem is us. Sorry: it’s an inconvenient truth. Most people of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation who lived through rationing in the UK in the 1940s and 50s just don’t tend to be fussy eaters! There must be more to it than “my kid doesn’t like that.”
If you want to read something that reassures you that you’re doing a good job, even though your kid refuses to eat anything but pasta and cheese… but not farfalle this week, it has to be macaroni ; and the cheese must be grated finely and not using the side of the cheese grater that normal humans use then go and check out one of the other countless blogs that will massage your ego instead! This is NOT for you.
I’ve learned throughout my teaching career to watch what other teachers do and try it out for myself if I like their way better. There’s no shame in learning, growing and evolving (and encouraging our kids to do the same) but I would argue that being stubborn and doing something because that’s the way it has always been done or because you’re too defensive to listen to reason is a negative character trait.
If you’re here to get some tips on getting your child to eat a wider range of foods then you’re in the right place…
Keep offering it
Repeated trying of new foods is more likely to get a child to eat them. You could offer these foods raw, steamed, baked, in a cheese sauce, alongside a small amount of something they’ll eat, on a pizza or in a whole load of other ways. It doesn’t have to be boring. Just don’t give in! And appear calm even if you’re not.
You could also involve your child in meal preparation. They could help choose vegetables from the supermarket for a colourful salad and help to chop them (with supervision of course), decorate their own pizza, add ingredients to what you’re making and help stir. My 4 year old son helps to prepare his own lunch box to take to preschool – he butters his own bread, chooses and puts the filling into his sandwich, then selects which piece of fruit he wants.
A hungry child will eat what they’re given, even if this habit takes time to crack.
If your child is 4 or older, they should really only be having a maximum of one snack per day. My son has followed this routine since he was 3 and is always properly hungry by mealtimes. As a result, he eats what there is. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t flexibility for special occasions or when we’re planning on eating a main meal later than usual, but usually snacking is not part of our day (and as a result I don’t have to carry a huge bag around with me – I would like to have a full rant here about prepackaged, processed snacks and the fact that the plastic trash will NEVER decompose / what’s wrong with a piece of fruit as a snack? but I have a lot more to say on the main topic so I’ll get back to that).
If your child doesn’t eat their lunch because they know that there will be snacks available soon, what incentive is there to eat the meal? None. A lot of parents fall into the trap of giving their children a lot of snacks because their diet at mealtimes is poor, but what they’re actually doing is facilitating their child’s poor eating habits. I thought that this was a problem in the UK…. and then I moved to the US where snacking is taken to a whole other epic level. Snacking is the main enemy of unfussy eating.
If you do try cutting down on the snacks, please don’t expect it to be plain sailing at first – the older your child, the more used to this routine they are and the more difficult it will be to change. It will be worth it in the end but you need to invest your time and effort now to get that reward.
There is what there is
We have a saying in our family – “there is what there is.” Meaning: you can eat what I’ve made or go hungry. The key is to be calm about this message and to spend any time that your child is just looking at their food talking to them about things that interest them. Don’t make mealtimes into a fight – there is what there is, but you’re not going to show your frustration if nothing is eaten this time. You may lose this battle, but you will win the war!
If your child’s tastes vary from meal to meal it’s time to get stricter (but remain calm)! If they liked mac and cheese last week, but not today then that’s tough luck. There is what there is and you’re not their servant! It’s fine to offer a small portion of something that you know that your child will eat alongside new foods, but don’t give them so much of this that they will feel full as they will have no incentive to try the rest of the meal.
If your child will eat a better diet in some places than others, it’s time for the adult with the least mealtime success to take action and get real. They should ask the other adult(s) that care for the child what works for them and apply it. No excuses. If you are asking whether your child would prefer something else after food is rejected or you’re preparing unnecessary special meals for them YOUR CHILD is in control.
If you’re making special meals for your kid: unless you really enjoy it, stop it! You’re not doing your child any favours, plus you’re making your own life more difficult. Use the extra time that you’ve gained by not pandering to your child having a nice sit down / cup of coffee / glass of wine etc. Parenting can be exhausting so treat yourself!
If a child knows that adult A will be strict, but adult B will not be then the child will hold out for adult B to cave in. If both adults are equally as strict on the rule that “there is what there is” then the child will eat when they’re hungry. Remember: no yelling at your child! Even if they’re pushing you to the brink of insanity. Which they will.
There is never any dessert in our house for anyone who doesn’t eat their main meal properly. Ever.
Dessert is a privilege not a right.
This is important. If your child sees the rest of the family eating well then they are more likely to want to do the same. You need to model what you expect of your child. There’s always after their bed time to pig out on whatever you like (or eat in front of the TV)! I do this most nights.
Eating well also means at a table (or picnic blanket) for the vast majority of meals. Shockingly (to me), a recent thread on a parents’ group that I subscribe to advocated children eating in the car for their breakfast every morning so that the parent could get to work on time. WHAT IS WRONG WITH THESE PEOPLE??? The bottom line is that if you want your kids to eat properly then you need to demonstrate to them that it’s important by making proper time for it. Sure, we all use less than desirable methods from time to time but please don’t make it a normal part of the routine.
(My son also sits properly at the dinner table and asks if he may get down at the end of the meal… Any child can do this and here’s how.)
Are there certain characteristics in common between the foods that your kid doesn’t like? If you have a child without all of their baby teeth then you may find that texture is an issue. It’s ok to admit temporary defeat and return to it when your child is older. Or for your older child, you could try cooking it differently.
There is a chemical called PTC in vegetables such as broccoli which you can either taste (bitter) or you can’t taste at all depending on your genes. This may be the reason why your child dislikes some green vegetables such as broccoli. What you as the parent do about this information is up to you – you could treat it as a genuine dislike or as a challenge to overcome. At the Science Museum in our city, my son and I tested for this and are both non-tasters so I’ll admit that I have no expertise in this area!
OK, this is where I’m a lot softer. We all have a few things that we genuinely don’t like, right? I don’t like jam. Never have, never will. I would hate it if someone force fed me jam, so I wouldn’t do the equivalent to my son. If it’s only a small handful of foods that your child doesn’t like, you can respect their tastes. Make the food available on the table or on the side of their plates but don’t force them to eat it. Remember, repeated exposure to these foods is more likely to get your child to like them.
The firm action that I advocate depends on your certainty that you’re doing the best for your child in the long run, so make sure that you know if there’s anything your child can’t eat before you start! If you’re uncertain, try omitting common problem foods in turn such as gluten, dairy, nuts etc. for at least 3 days before reintroducing them. Watch your child’s behaviour and skin during this time for changes and consult a doctor if you have concerns. I am not for one minute suggesting that a genuine food allergy is the same as fussiness.
Good luck, and I hope that your child is / becomes an unfussy eater too!
A Woman Less Ordinary lives, parents, purchases and thinks differently. With 10 years of teaching experience, she has many effective techniques for managing kids’ behaviour (and a lot to say about finance if you’re interested) BUT YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO ANY OF IT!