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10 Strategies To Managing Fussy Eaters

Almost every parent will relate to having their meals rejected by their kids or having their children decide that they now don’t like something that used to be a favourite! 

When 50 of the Wholefood Canteen parents were recently surveyed, the top 3 things that frustrated them most about preparing family meals were:

  1. Having to prepare separate meals for their partner and children because of picky eaters,
  2. Getting their children to eat vegetables and salads, and
  3. Tension and anxiety at meal times because they know “their food will get turned down”.

Sound familiar?

Below we share some tried and tested strategies for how you can make meal times a positive experience for everyone and create a positive food culture at home.

By: Belinda Pooley, Wholefood Canteen

1. Be a role model and lead by example

As a parent, you will most likely be responsible for choosing and providing most of the food that your child eats and ultimately help in establishing their eating habits and preferences.

Children are sponges and will mimic much of what you do, especially as it relates to food and your relationship with it. If your kids know you don’t like a particular food, they will be less willing to try it themselves.  Use descriptive words (ie: juicy, fresh, sweet, delicious etc) and positive associations when talking to your children about food. 

2. Involve your children in food preparation and cooking

Cooking with your children is an excellent way to help them build healthy eating habits. And as a bonus, children are more likely to eat foods they have helped make which means they are more likely to try new foods too.

In line with Montessori Education Principles, below are some age appropriate tasks that children can assist with:

2-year-olds can: 

  • Wipe table tops
  • Wash fruits and vegetables
  • Tear lettuce or greens
  • Break cauliflower or broccoli into pieces
  • Carry ingredients from one place to another

3-year-olds can: 

  • Knead and shape dough
  • Mix or pour ingredients
  • Shake liquids in a covered container to mix them
  • Apply soft spreads
  • Put things in the trash

4-year-olds can: 

  • Peel fruits like bananas and mandarins or hard-boiled eggs
  • Mash bananas or cooked beans with a fork
  • Cut parsley and green onions with child-safe scissors
  • Set the table

5 to 6-year-olds can: 

  • Measure ingredients
  • Use an egg beater
  • Sift and whisk
  • Undertake simple cutting tasks with child-safe scissors

 3. Aim to create a communal eating setting

Since starting Wholefood Canteen, our experience has shown it to be extremely rare for children not to try new foods that are being served to them, especially in a communal eating environment. Positive parent and peer modeling around food has been shown to increase a child’s likelihood to try fruits and vegetables in particular.

In addition, studies have shown that kids who eat at a table with friends and loved ones have a higher EQ and more advanced social skills.

4. Try, try and try again!

Keep offering a variety of new foods even if your child may reject them at first. Sometimes it may take several attempts of serving a new food for a child to embrace the flavour, taste and texture but again, our experience at Wholefood Canteen has shown that persistence pays off. Many children need to taste new foods between 7 -15 times (sometimes more!) before they become ‘familiar’ and are readily accepted.

Sometimes serving new foods alongside a food that your child already likes – for example, some peas or carrots alongside some mashed potato, can entice children to try the new food.

5. Never use food to punish, reward or bribe

Using food as a form of emotional manipulation tool early in life can set the stage for unhealthy and destructive emotional eating habits as an adolescent or adult.

Dieticians from Nutrition Australia, advise, “Bribes (such as ‘Eat you Brussel sprouts if you want ice-cream’) tend to backfire over time. Children may consume an unappetising food (or medicine) in order to obtain a reward, but that doesn’t mean that they will start to like the food. Such bribes can in fact cause children to intensely dislike the food they are being bribed to eat, and to increase their preference for the prize food.”

6. Be flexible and offer choices

This is not about making separate meals or offering a buffet at every meal time, but if a particular food isn’t working out, try giving your child an alternative. Children love to assert their independence, and food is one of the first ways they attempt to do this.

So in providing the child with an opportunity to choose (for example, would you like sliced apple or mashed banana?), it becomes a more empowering experience where you both ‘win’.

7. Be creative with how your serve new foods

Come up with ways to introduce new foods and flavours. If your child doesn’t like a certain food the first time they are presented with it, present it another way.

As an example, when we have served a new pasta or rice dish on the Wholefood Canteen menu, the same children would flat out refuse to eat their meal. It was only when we served the sauce separate to the pasta or rice, would these kids try the food. On the second and third occasion, they were willingly eating the sauce and the pasta/rice together without complaint!

Some of the other ways we have tested this at Wholefood Canteen is:

–       Serving cheese in fingers, cubes and slices

–       Serving meat different ways (i.e.: in bakes, as burgers, as meatballs, or as a sandwich filling)

–       Serving fruit fresh or dried, cut into different sizes and with the skin on and off

–       Cutting vegetables differently – for example, serving carrots in slices, diced, as dipping sticks or grated.

Take a look at our Pinterest board here for some creative inspiration to make kids meal times fun!

8. Create a routine at meal times but make it fun too

Children thrive on routine, so do your best to keep mealtimes on a regular schedule. Also important is to limit distractions at meal times, so this may mean turning off the TV and mobile phones and having everything you need for the meal at the table before everyone is seated.  The family mealtime is a perfect opportunity for the family to share a story about their day, engage in a fun activity and for everyone to be present with each other. This aspect alone is how you can begin to create a positive food culture which will stay with your child for life.

A great book to read on this topic is ‘The Family Dinner’ by Laurie David – a guide on ‘how to connect with your kids one meal at a time’. 

9. Educate and engage your children about their food, where it comes from and how it’s grown

This point is so important and something close to our hearts. When we cook and eat at home, we decide what goes into our children’s bodies and effectively, take our power back over the plethora of processed food that is marketed to children these days.

Engaging your child in where their food comes from and how it’s grown (which may involve taking them to a local market or community garden and speaking to a farmer), planting vegetables at home if space allows and allowing them to harvest their food (vegetables and eggs), will certainly increase their appreciation and enjoyment of food; a privilege that many children in first world countries are sadly denied today. 

You may be familiar with the Jamie Oliver school dinner TV series, where children as old as twelve did not know what a potato was when asked to identify it and thought that milk and meat came from a supermarket and scoffed when they were told it came from a cow!

Research undertaken to evaluate the success of the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation * revealed that, “…the children had become more willing to try new foods and were more aware of issues of health and nutrition. Children were also prepared to try new dishes, were making healthier choices and consuming more vegetables.”

Interestingly, the findings also showed that since the implementation of the program, some children had also improved academically, particularly the ‘non-academic learners’ and those with challenging behaviours. 

(* The Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation Program is an Australian-wide initiative, currently run in 650 schools. Children learn how to grow, harvest, prepare and share fresh seasonal food. The fundamental philosophy that underpins the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program is that by setting good examples and engaging children’s curiosity, as well as their energy and their taste buds, we can provide positive and memorable food experiences that will form the basis of positive lifelong eating habits.)

10. Keep your Pregnancy Diet Clean

Research shows that what we eat when pregnant plays a large role in shaping our child’s food preferences later in life. Don’t beat yourself up however! Pregnancy cravings can often come in unexpected forms, so do the best you can to stick to a mainly wholefoods diet.

If you have any tips or experiences that you would like to share, we’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.

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