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So, you have a fussy eater too?

You have a fussy eater too?

Yum Yum Kids Top Tips

Most children have some foods that they don’t like or won’t eat, and it is common for young children to go through a stage in development when they are fussy about food, even when they started off being really good eaters.  They may suddenly refuse to eat certain foods, demand tomato sauce with everything or insist that different foods aren’t touching one another on their plates for fear of ‘contamination’ this sounding familiar? Then read on...

Firstly, it helps to accept that this is normal (as frustrating as this stage may be).  It is a phase, and it will pass, but probably not overnight.  Fussy eating generally starts between 1 and 3 years of age.  The good news is after 3 years of age most children will begin to grow out of their fussy eating habits.  Accepting that this is something you will just have to deal with as a parent, without getting too stressed about is half the battle. 

The reality is that fussy eating, and lack of wanting to try new things isn’t a huge problem as long as your child still has a balanced diet – toddlers won’t starve from fussy eating and they can thrive on remarkably little food.  What you don’t want is for it to become more severe, with your children limiting their diets to such an extent that every mealtime turns into a battleground and you (their parents) worrying that their nutritional requirements are not being met.

Even though this is a normal stage, it is important to recognise that you can still make a difference to your child’s eating habits by setting a good pattern at the very start, and avoiding some of the common pitfalls that can lead to fussy eating habits.

Laying good foundations for good eating habits

If you are reading this and you are only just starting out on your solids journey then the key thing is to let your baby experience a variety of different foods from a young age. 
  • Yum Yum Kids Tip: During the latter part of the first year, you can be more adventurous with your toddler’s food, adding different spices and flavourings.  Also try offering them a taste of your meal when you are out in restaurants.  This all helps to widen their experience.

The second year and on...

Although at times it will feel like your toddler is doing this just to spite you there are in fact some developmental reasons why toddlers and young children pick and poke at the food you dish up.

After a year of rapid growth, the average 1 year old has tripled their birth weight. Toddlers gain weight more slowly in comparison.  Simply put toddlers and small children don’t eat as much as babies because they don’t need as much! At this age, children often seem to eat huge amounts of food one day, and then very little the next.  This is normal.  Healthy children eat when they are hungry and usually not before.  A healthy child appears to be the best judge of how much they should eat.
  • Yum Yum Kids Tip: If your child is consuming breakfast, lunch and dinner with appropriate snacks/and or milk feeds (if still appropriate) and yet still asking for more food because they are 'still hungry' offer them only a piece of fruit.  You will soon find out if they are 'truly hungry' once the choccy biscuits or other yummy alternatives are not an option!

Do you have a problem?

It is easy to worry that your child is not eating enough.  I always advise to keep a food diary for a few weeks if you are feeling anxious.  It is the overall intake of food over several days or even a week that is important, and keeping a food diary is often a good way of reassuring yourself that your child is getting what they need. Some parents are pleasantly surprised to find that their child is actually eating quite well when they analyse it.  If on the other hand you find that your child is missing out on whole food groups, not just certain foods (and therefore the nutrition they require) it can be a good idea to seek further help or advice from a qualified professional.
  • YYK Tip: Firstly, make sure you are aware of the main food groups and try to ensure that they eat something from each in the recommended quantities.  Don’t worry if they refuse certain foods.  If their diet is broadly balanced, they may still be getting all the essentials they need from each food group.  By keeping a food diary you will spot whether there are any gaps in their basic nutritional needs.
  • Liquids and snack intake can also be revealing.  Solids should become your child’s main source of nutrition from 1 year onwards, but milk still plays an important role in a balanced diet.  A child of this age can be given full fat cow’s milk and should be drinking between 350 – 550ml a day.

Tips for fussy eaters

Unfortunately there are no silver bullet fixes for fussy eaters.  Here are some basic rules that I recommend.  It will take some time so persevere, be consistent, make sure both parents/caregivers are on board and don’t give up!

1. Try and stick as much as possible to a pattern of regular mealtimes that works for you – i.e. breakfast by 8am, lunch at midday and dinner at 5pm (with appropriate snacks in between).  Timing of food and drinks can often be the problem – rather than a sudden dislike of a food. 

2. Keep mealtimes short – roughly 30 minutes.  Don’t let them turn into a battle. 

3. If your toddler is continuing to refuse to eat, don’t force or insist – just take the plate away.  Sometimes building up this kind of anxiety around food can lead to fussiness (if you are feeling anxious about the ‘lack of eating’ try not to let them see this, they will pick up on it and it can make it worse). 

4. Explain to your child that if they don’t eat their meal, they will not be offered snacks as an alternative and they will have to wait until the next meal.  Sometimes an eating issue is exacerbated when parents start to worry about their child and offer alternative snacks if they don't eat meals!

5. Make sure that they are actually hungry at mealtimes, and haven’t filled up on drinks and snacks beforehand.  Allow a two-hour gap between meals if you can.

6. Allow them to eat at least half of their food at mealtimes before offering a drink.  Sipper cups are ideal at this stage.

7. If possible, try and give a main protein meal at lunchtime when they are more alert and therefore more likely to eat all their food.  Then you won’t worry as much if your child is tired at dinner time and becomes fussy about their meal.

8. Toddlers tend to prefer a variety of foods in small quantities and separated, rather than large amounts of one or two foods.  Give them a selection of foods (that you deem appropriate) as it will encourage them to try more of them.

9. Be careful not to put too much on their plate, as this can be off putting.  It is better to serve a smaller amount and give them a second helping if they finish it all.

10. Have the right tools on hand to do the job.  Use brightly coloured plates, cutlery made specifically for little hands or plates with separate compartments.  Respecting your child’s preferences (within reason) by relinquishing and letting your child win the occasional small battle….you will ultimately win the war (that is, your fussy eater will try new foods and eat healthy foods). This may be something simple like  avoiding foods touching each other, so use a divided plate. For some children an ‘undesirable’ food touching a ‘desirable’ food contaminates everything. By acknowledging your child’s preferences you can make them feel more in control and increase the likelihood of your child eating the meal. It will also go a long way to take the stress and conflict out of mealtimes.

Don’t forget to praise your child when they eat new foods, just as you would offer praise for other good behaviour.  This will help them to feel good about healthy eating. 

I hope that this article and these tips will allow you to feel more confident about your child’s eating, and not to worry too much about how much they eat.  If you eat well yourself, show your child that you enjoy a variety of foods (children learn by example) you are on the right track.  So sit back, breathe, be consistent and follow through.  And most importantly have FUN, remember that mealtimes should be happy times.   
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