SEEING your child refuse to eat can be very distressing for any parent.
But there’s lots you can do to avoid temper tantrums at the dinner table and make sure your child is getting all the nutrients they need.
Paediatric nutritionist Judy More (child-nutrition.co.uk) says it’s important to remain patient – most children will grow out of it in time.
Here Judy shares her advice to help handle fussy eating, depending on your child’s age…
“Sometimes babies can be very difficult during the weaning period and that could be down to a physiological problem,” Judy says.
“Sometimes babies have oromotor delay which means the muscles and nerves in the mouth develop slower than average.
“They might have trouble with different textures.
“Some young babies appear to have a hyper sensitive mouth.
“They may also be sensitive to touch so things like walking in bare feet on sand or grass.
“Babies with a very sensitive mouth may find it hard to cope with new foods and that might make them a bit more wary about what they eat.”
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
Introduce your child to as many foods as possible at an early age.
Giving them a limited number of foods may only escalate fussiness and deprive them of the nutrients they need to grow and develop.
Hide your frustrations if they won’t eat something.
Instead, say positive things about the food, eat it yourself and praise them if they eat well or try something new.
Offer both finger foods and spoon feeding so they develop both types of feeding skills.
Sometimes babies will refuse to be spoon fed. Give them plenty of soft finger foods and let them progress at their own pace.
Work out which foods they are eating. If a major food group is missing, speak to a healthcare professional about giving them a supplement.
This is important, otherwise the child’s growth or brain development may slow.
“Often around the age of two, most children go through a developmental phase where they become quite fussy,” Judy explains.
“This is a normal psychological phase. They become very careful with foods, they look at foods carefully and if they don’t recognise something, they won’t put it in their mouth.”
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
Remember it is just a phase. Don’t try and force feed them.
This can make them feel upset and frustrated and they will begin to associate mealtimes with these feelings.
Eat with your child. The more they see you eat and enjoy something, the sooner they will recognise a food as safe to eat.
Let them play with food. The more they touch the food and go near it, the more they get used to the smell and the look of it, they become more familiar with it.
It might be a long time that they touch and play with it but they won’t put it near their mouth. That is ok.
Older children can also help prepare food and unpack shopping.
Develop a regular feeding routine of three main meals and two or three healthy snacks a day.
Aim to offer meals and snacks at roughly the same time each day.
Children like routine and will be more comfortable if they know when to expect food.
Offer small portions. It’s tempting to overload the plate in the hope your child will eat something but this can be overwhelming for fussy eaters and put them off trying any food at all.
“For some children, fussy eating goes on much longer and I’ve seen children of nine or 10 who only eat a very limited range of foods,” Judy explains.
“They are less likely to copy other children.
“Sometimes they have had an issue eating something in the past and if they can’t manage it in their mouth, they panic.
“It takes longer for them to learn to like new foods.”
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
Do not pressure your child. If the child feels pressured, they will become anxious about meal times and having to eat.
Sometimes parents try to bribe their children, there is shouting or an insistence that they try something new.
They will become anxious and their appetite drops.
Rest assured the child will pass through this phase and come to eat a wider range of foods but it will be on their own terms and at their own pace.
You can’t speed them up but you can slow it down if you manage it badly.
Try offering your child rewards – not bribes.
A star or sticker chart in the kitchen can be motivational for older children.
Give your child a sticker for trying new foods and when they have collected a few, reward them with a prize.
Be a good role model. Your child is more likely to try new foods or eat well if others around them are doing so.
If you turn your nose up at a food, your child will likely do the same.
Get them cooking. Most children adore cooking and can help with squeezing fresh orange juice, mixing things in bowls or cracking eggs.
Being involved in preparing food can make the child more familiar with different foods and in time be more likely to try them.
Keep to a routine with set meal and snack times. Again, they can help unpack shopping or choose food in the supermarket.
“It can be tricky to deal with fussy eating by the time a child reaches their teenage years,” Judy says.
“As teenagers begin to make more of their own decisions, they follow their peer group and reject their parents’ advice.
“Parents will have less and less influence on their choices.”
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
Keep them social. Older children or teenagers will sometimes widen the foods they eat to try and fit in with their peers so let them enjoy mealtimes or days out with friends.
Have regular family dinner times. This gets harder as children get older and you are juggling school, extracurricular activities and work.
You don’t have to sit round the table every night but do it as much as you can. It could be breakfast rather than dinner.
Ask them to offer suggestions for shopping or meal planning.
Continue with supplements if their diet is missing a major food group. This will help them grow and develop.
Do not force them to eat, it will cause arguments.
Continue to role model healthy eating as your teenager will notice and may revert to your standards by their early 20s.
Let them eat the foods they DO eat. Some teens or older children only like beige or plain, dry foods.
Make sure you offer them these foods at mealtimes. They need the nutrition to grow.
If they have a sweet tooth, it is fine to offer them a sweet course.
Still offer a savoury meal and give them something sweet afterwards.
Remember that fussy eating in young children does not cause eating disorders which is a much more complicated problem.
Regular family mealtimes helps prevent teenagers from losing sight of normal eating practices and food portion sizes.
If you are worried your child may have an eating disorder you can get help at beat.org.uk or speak to your GP.
Remember, it’s not your fault
Judy says: “It can be very distressing for parents to see a child not eat.
“The most important thing for parents to remember is that this is nothing to worry about.
“All children eat certain foods. Give them those foods along with a supplement if necessary.
“Always buy brands of supplements that are sold in pharmacies as they will have good quality control.
“The supplement market is not regulated and some may not contain what is claimed on the label.
“You have to be very gentle with the child. The vast majority will grow out of it.
“In around 70 per cent of cases, the parent will say they had a fussy eating phase as a child too so there could be a genetic element to it.
“Often parents blame themselves but in many cases, it doesn’t matter what you did, this would have happened anyway.
“Parents think they did something wrong but that is rarely the case.
“Make a list of what the child does eat and try to find some foods in that category that might help.
“Some children like salty foods, such as bacon, toast with marmite or olives.
“Offer them as much of that as you like.
“GPs are generally sympathetic to a parent with a child who does not eat but in many cases it can help to get expert nutrition advice.
“Look for a registered nutritionist or dietician via The Association of Nutrition and seek out somebody who has experience with fussy eating.”
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