Mealtimes can feel near impossible when you have a fussy eater. Along with cooking dinner you are left feeling like you need to prepare for battle every night just to get them to eat something. A lot of other parents are going through the same thing, so you start to question, is this normal? Or is it possible to actually improve your kids’ mealtimes?
Here is the thing, while it is so often considered a parenting ‘rite of passage’ to have a fussy eater at some point through your child’s development, it does not mean you need to just let it go by in the hopes you are one of the lucky ones whose child will outgrow it.
A stage of fussy eating is common and considered normal around 18months for any child. But there are ways we can prevent this from becoming an ongoing problem and most importantly help your child develop good eating and mealtime habits that will last them a lifetime.
So, what are the warning signs that your little one’s fussy eating has started to become a serious problem?
Warning signs of fussy eaters
- Losing weight or low weight: This is one of the most obvious signs and the most common one that will be picked up at their usual check-ups with a doctor. If you child is struggling to put on weight or has dropped weight because they are not eating adequate calories, then this can be a cause for concern, and you should reach out for help!
- Eating less than 20 liked foods: Safe or liked foods are those that you know your child will eat when served up to them. If you can’t identify 20 different foods that your child will eat the majority of time, then it is time to reach out to make sure we can increase their variety early.
- Is it happening at most mealtimes: If your child refuses the majority of foods at most of their mealtimes, it is important to get on top of their eating early so it doesn’t become a habit!
- Length of time that is has gone on for: When picky eating goes on for longer than a month habit can start to form that are even harder to break, causing more stress for you and your child!
- If you are feeling stressed and worried: Talking about stress, Mum, dad, caregiver – I am looking at you. Mealtimes do not have to be stressful. You are allowed to enjoy your meals as well. So, if the mealtime battles are starting to take over and even the thought of sitting down to a meal with your toddler is enough to get your blood boiling, it is time to reach out for help!
- You notice aversions to particular textures of food: Are you kids hesitant to try wet foods, or maybe they don’t like crunchy foods? This can be a big warning sign that something else could be going on.
- They aren’t eating from every food group: To make sure they are eating all the nutrients that they need to develop their growing bodies; it is important they are getting adequate variety from every food group.
Here is the thing, these warning signs show that something more serious is going on. I am not one to fear monger. But it is important to reach out for help if you notice any of these signs in your child. That being said, it is never too early to set up the foundations of a healthy relationship with food for your child and most importantly them develop good eating habits for life!
So, what are some key steps to help your child navigate their eating habits and improve their mealtime behaviours?
Improving mealtime behaviours
- Take off that pressure – The moment that your little one feels pressured to eat something on their plate they will back off immediately. Don’t ask them to eat something, don’t ask them to try something. Simply eat alongside them and let them engage and explore what is on their plate.
- Know your role – This comes with taking the pressure off. When you know your role and your child’s role at mealtimes you can set your mealtimes up for success. We call this the division of responsibility – You choose what and when to serve food and your child chooses what and how much to eat of what you serve.
- Expose, Expose, expose – It can take anywhere from 15-20 exposures for your child to actually try something. So instead of worrying about what they are eating instead focus on what and how they are being exposed to different foods.
- Model the behaviour – Children learn through observation. When they watch you eat the same food that is Infront of them they know that it is safe to eat and will start to feel more comfortable with it.
- Make meals more engaging – Engagement with a meal is the key to increasing those valuable exposures at mealtimes. So, serve up a dip or sauce with their meal to encourage the action of dipping. Or deconstruct the meal so they can see all the elements of the meal – these are just a few techniques we use to help kids feel more comfortable at mealtimes.
- Set a schedule for meals – Just like your child has a ‘usual’ bed and nap time they should have mealtimes on a schedule as well. This can look different for every family. But it is key to prevent over snacking and also to help you as the parent or carer set boundaries around your mealtimes. To learn more about setting mealtime boundaries download a copy of my free Roadmap to Mealtime Success.
When your child is fussy around food is can make mealtimes feel stressful and feel like you need to prepare for battle every single night. But with a few tweaks to your mealtimes, you can make a huge change in their eating habits.
So often parents feel they should know how to do it. But having a child doesn’t mean that the ‘rule book of parenting’ gets downloaded into your brain. It’s a learning process for you as much as it is for your child. The professionals that are out there to help you have studied for years and continue to study and keep up to date with the latest research every day.
Shelley is a paediatric nutritionist on a mission to help parents feel confident feeding their kids. As founder of Good Little Eaters, Shelley works closely with parents to help them understand their child’s eating habits and work through their mealtimes behaviours so that mealtimes can be enjoyable again!
Or check out her website www.goodlittleeaters.com