We all have a fairy tale idea of family mealtimes with the children: chatting and laughing with everyone happily tucking into their food. But if your child is a fussy eater, this couldn’t be further removed from the stressful reality of mealtimes.
Where, instead of enjoying a meal with your family, all the focus is on your child who won’t eat. And NOTHING is going to persuade them to try their vegetables. Or their meat. Or anything at all really … unless it’s pudding, of course.
If this sounds familiar, you might like to know that you’re not alone. In fact, fussy eating in toddlers is such a common problem that the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP) see it as a stage of normal development. A third of under-fives go through a stage of refusing food or selective eating at some point.
The good news is, there’s help at hand!
Why won’t my child eat?
According to the RCP, it’s partly because children are experimenting with, or being asked to try, new textures and tastes, and partly because they are testing their parents’ reactions and seeing what effect their behavior has.
Rest assured that the majority of children WILL grow out of any problems. In the meantime you can help minimize mealtime tantrums and raised stress levels with some of the tips below.
Get going straight away
Research shows that if your child has been introduced to a wide range of foods straight from weaning, they are more likely to accept them.
A delay in offering textured, ‘lumpy’ foods or chunks of food can contribute to later faddy eating.
Almost all young children will have their food favorites and will take against certain foods that they’ve previously liked, or will refuse certain other foods just from looking at them.
Many will use food refusal as a way to get your attention or a reaction. If they’re not underweight, seem healthy and are eating some foods from each of the groups, then you shouldn’t worry too much.
If they see you get agitated, or if you try to force them to eat, this could make the situation worse.
Commonly hated foods
A survey conducted by University College London found that these are the foods that four and five-year-old children hate most:
- cottage cheese
- sweet pepper
Teething, poorly or tired?
If your child is teething they may feel off color, their gums will be sore and they may be off their food. Offer sugar-free rusks or rice cakes to chew on and plenty to drink until they feel better.
If your child is ill, they may well be off their food. See a doctor about their illness and offer plenty to drink.
If your child is more tired than usual, or worried about anything they may go off their food.
How to deal with a limited diet
If your child will only eat a few different types of food – say, milk, bread, cheese, apples – it can be a huge worry that they are lacking vital nutrients.
Try to build on a favorite food and work others in. For example, if they love milk, then add a small amount of blended fruit to make a milkshake and gradually increase the amount and variety of fruits used.
If they love bread, try it toasted, plain, white, brown, with butter, with spread, and then try a tiny bit of peanut butter or mashed banana in a small sandwich.
For a child with limited appetite, a small range of foods they’ll eat or who is failing to grow properly or thrive, your community dietitian may advise vitamin and mineral drops. Vitamin A, C and D are commonly given to small children.
If your child has a small appetite, be guided on whether that is a cause for concern by whether they are a reasonable weight or not. If they are then don’t worry. Many small children don’t have much of an appetite for their main meals because they have filled up on snacks and drinks between mealtimes.
Let them get hungry
A child needs to be somewhat hungry to enjoy their meal, so try offering only water or diluted juice for drinks and snacks of fresh fruit or vegetable batons between meals.
Focus on what they DO like
Even if your child says they hate fruit and vegetables, there’s usually a few items they do like. Concentrate on these for the time being and introduce tiny amounts of one or two of the disliked ones again every few weeks (but not all at the same time).
Few children like everything so if they only dislike some vegetables then that isn’t too much of a problem. They can get all the nutrients they need from the ones they do like.
Avoid junk food
Try to avoid buying or offering these items from weaning up to school years. By and large if a young child doesn’t have access to these foods, they won’t want them; they won’t even know what they taste like.
It’s in these young years that tastes develop and with luck you can avoid your child getting a strong liking for unsuitable items. At this age you have control over what you buy for your children, so try not to introduce the idea that these items are treats or rewards.
This is especially important for overweight children and for children who have a poor appetite and trouble eating enough of the ‘good’ foods.
Avoid sweet and salty foods
Tastes for salty and sweet foods are developed early in life – though they can be reversed, it is harder when entrenched.
However, there is nothing wrong with many puddings. Things like custards, fruit desserts and rice puddings can offer a range of important nutrients such as vitamin C, calcium and protein.
If your child eats a general balanced diet, the small amounts of sugar in these desserts are fine.
Even quite small children can help prepare food, from washing fruit and vegetables through to taste testing.
Set a time limit
However if a child really doesn’t want their meal, never force them to sit there with uneaten food for ages after others have finished. Set a time limit on each meal of 20–30 minutes. Don’t ever offer bribes (eat up these greens and you can have some sweets…).