It can begin so well; your lovingly prepared home made purees wolfed down by your cherubic six month old with a huge, banana filled grin. If you are lucky, your baby will still be eating anything you put in front of them by the time they become a chubby toddler. You pat yourself on the back for having raised a child with such an amazing pallet and think how lucky you are that your toddler loves nothing more than to suck on a piece of steamed carrot for a snack and actually asks for apples.
Then one day, you prepare your two year old his favorite breakfast of blueberry porridge, a meal he has enjoyed most mornings for the past year, it all goes horribly, horribly wrong. He looks at it. He sniffs it. He looks at you like you’ve presented him with something scooped out of the cats litter box. He pushes it away.
This may just be a one off, or it may be the beginning of the end, the start of a phase of fussy eating so bad that for the next year, your child will refuse to eat anything apart from sugar filled yogurts, cheap ham and sweet corn (possibly all at the same time).
Of course we all want our children to grow up strong healthy and with a good attitude towards food, so this can be a very distressing time for parents. There is the constant worry that your child is not getting all the vitamins and nutrients he needs to grow.
Having a fussy eater can be an emotional strain on the whole family; mealtimes can become stressful when your child refuses to eat what the rest of the family are enjoying and the air of tension at meal times can magnify the situation.
No matter how well you plan your child’s diet, the truth is, many children go though a phase of fussy eating. It can be frustrating when this phase lasts for months (or years!) but what are the best ways of helping your child through it?
The most important thing that I have learned from having two children who have both gone through a fussy eating phase and come through it (and will now eat anything going) is to CHILL OUT. Yes, you want your child to be healthy, and lets face it, we can’t live without food. But the fact is, no one is going to write in your obituary “her children always ate their five a day” and there are no medals for being the mother who’s child wolfs down paella while asking what exotic fruits are for desert.
If a child is eating something, then it’s fine. I’ve had a child who’s entire weekly intake of food once consisted of two slices of toast and a bowl of rice, and he survived. So what if you child will only eat tuna sandwiches for a week? The human body is pretty remarkable and resilient, and I have never seen a child willingly starve themselves to death.
It is important never to make mealtimes into a battle ground. Yes, it can be frustrating to see them refuse to eat their dinner and push the same piece of carrot around their plate for half an hour, but the key is to ignore. Making an issue of the situation will exacerbate it. If they don’t eat what is in front of them, then at the end of the meal, clear it away without a fuss. This might seem like a hardline approach to most, but it was recommended to me by my Grandmother. A midwife in her day, and having raised three children during the second world war, she had no tolerance for mealtime dramas. If you didn’t eat what you were given, that was fine, but there was nothing else offered. A harsh approach, but one I have stuck to with my own children.
My main tips for dealing with a fussy eater are:
Don’t coax, bribe or plead with your toddler
As much as your mini dictator might object to it – YOU ARE THE BOSS. You have to stay in charge and keep calm and composed, no matter how fractious your child gets over mealtimes.
Don’t offer a different food instead
This way lies madness and you are opening yourself up to a life time of cooking separate meals for everyone in the family just to keep them happy.
Don’t offer dessert as a reward
You will end up with a child who eats one pea and then demands an ice cream. This can be more frustrating and harder to manage than the initial problem of fussy eating. You also run the risk of making certain food a ‘treat’ and therefore making them more desirable than their healthier counterparts.
Don’t assume that a refusal is forever
Your toddler always loved bananas; now he thinks they are the work of the devil and screams if he even see’s one in the supermarket. In three weeks time he will love them again. The first time your child tried mashed potato, he spat it out in disgust. Now, mashed potato is all he will eat. Remember the first rule of parenting: KIDS ARE WEIRD.
Don’t worry if a mealtime doesn’t go as planned
So, you chilled out, didn’t make an issue of anything but your kitchen looks like the pea soup scene from the exorcist and your child is screaming and throwing his toys around the room like a thing possessed. Its only one meal! And so what if it’s two meals, or three? Nothing lasts forever. Just make a mental note to do the same thing to them when you are 80.
In all seriousness, there are situations where fussy eating is not a stage that will pass. Some children really do have major issues with food. Fussy eating can sometimes be a symptom of other issues e.g sensory issues. If your child’s fussy eating continues or you are worried that it could be linked with other symptoms, the best port of call is your GP.