Body & Fitness

7 ways to deal with a fussy eater

What to do when your child is a fussy eater.

If your toddler turns their nose up at most of the meals you serve them and will only stick to a few favourite foods, don’t panic too much.

This is normal for children aged between one and three, and there’s even a fancy term for refusing to try new foods – neophobia.

Humans developed this as we evolved as an instinctive way of protecting ourselves against unknown substances that could be poisonous or unsafe. So it is natural for them to be wary of unfamiliar foods, especially some vegetables that initially look unusual and taste bitter.

Toddlers may also respond with a big fat “no” when given something new, simply because they can. At this age, they are experimenting with exerting their independence and saying no is one way of doing that.

The trouble is, if they will only eat a few foods, you can end up worrying that they are missing out on vital nutrients they need for their development. This is a valid concern, but try not to let it stress you.

Feeding therapist from Small Talk Therapy in Auckland Mel Street also points out, “Kids this age have erratic appetites. Some days they will eat what seems like their own body weight in food and the next day hardly a scrap. Children tend not to need as much to eat as we think they do.”

But if you’re worried, here are some ways of getting them to be more adventurous eaters:

1.Offer new foods many times

The more you put a new food in front of them, the more familiar it becomes. Their natural caution may ease once they’ve seen it five times – although with some foods, it may need to be dished up 10 times or more before they’ll eat it. Be persistent!

2.Choose your time

If your child is tired or grumpy, chances are a new food is not going to be received very well. They are more likely to want food they know and like. Wait until they are relaxed and happy before giving them something new for the first time. And don’t give them more than one new food at a time.

3.Let them be in charge of feeding themselves

Allowing them to pick up the food and try it themselves gives them some measure of control, rather than you trying to shovel it down their throat on a spoon.

4.Eat with your kids

Your child may be more likely to eat their broccoli or cauliflower if they see you tucking into it and enjoying it. Tell them how yummy you think it is.

5.Don’t give up

If they spit it out, that doesn’t mean they hate it and will never eat it. Try it again, and again, and again. They may eventually become accustomed to it and be happy to eat it.

6.Don’t stress too much

If their fussy eating winds you up, try not to show it. They may pick up on your stress and see mealtimes as upsetting and difficult experiences. This will make it even harder.

If you are worried your child is not getting enough nutrients, consider giving them a specially formulated toddler milk. These contain vitamins and minerals that can supplement a normal diet.

Try making it into a smoothie – not only do they get the nutrients they need from the toddler milk, but the fruit is also good for them and it helps to keep their fluid levels up.

Toddler smoothie

Add two level scoops of a toddler milk to 90ml drinking water along with 1 tbsp stewed unsweetened apple and ¼ cup frozen berries. Mix in a blender.

If you’re worried your child is so fussy it is harming their health, it could be time to call in the professionals:

Some speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, dietitians and psychologists have specialist training in feeding problems and can work with parents to help kids learn how to eat or help inspire them to want to eat.

Jenni Lyons runs The Mess Hall feeding clinic in Wellington and says “I often work with children with oral-motor, sensory or behavioural areas of need. They have become limited in the range of foods that they eat. We work to establish regular, nutritious family meals that the whole family can enjoy.”

In the case of Lila, aged 16 months old, she had little interest in food and would only snack and ask for her bottle. She had particular difficulty with harder-to-chew foods like apple, banana and carrot.

Feeding therapy focused on chewing skills and gradually decreasing Lila’s milk intake. After 12 weeks Lila accepted a range of age-appropriate solids and had family meals at home. At ‘Fruit Break’ at day care, she was able to bite, chew, and swallow all raw fruits.

Polly was five when she first saw a feeding therapist. She was unwilling to eat lunch with her peers at school, and refused to eat at the family table. She would only accept five foods and these didn’t include any raw fruit or vegetables – only pureed fruit from a baby food pouch. She would also refuse to go to play dates and parties and was anxious about having to be around new or unfamiliar foods.

Polly saw a feeding therapist weekly for 14 weeks, and was given small steps to achieve, with no pressure to chew and swallow. Smelling, tasting, and touching were practiced until she felt safe to make bite marks, then chew small pieces, then swallow.

Six months later Polly has more than 30 foods she will eat, including raw fruit and vegetables.

Signs your child may need feeding therapy:

  1. Lack of mouthing toys as an infant

  2. Difficulties accepting or moving between different textures of food

  3. Frequent coughing and/or gagging when eating

  4. Less than 30 foods eaten or only eating specific brands or colours of foods

  5. Avoidance of touch around the face

  6. Irritability and anxiety around snack/meal times

  7. History of reflux or vomiting during or after foods

  8. Loss of food or liquid from the mouth or nose when eating/drinking

  9. Grimacing or odd facial expression when eating

  10. Tongue tie or history of tongue tie

Contact your local Speech Therapy department to see if they offer a feeding service. It will be run through the Child Development Team, Ministry of Health or Ministry of Education.

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