Dealing with a fussy eater

So you’ve tried everything from making aeroplane sounds and motions, to running after your toddler, to eating the baby food yourself to show how yummy it is, just to get your little one to eat one or two spoons of food. Yet he still refuses to eat and mealtimes have become a continuous struggle. Although it can be very distressing for parents, be reassured that in most cases fussiness is a normal phase of development and children are unlikely to come to harm eating poorly for a short while.

Make eating enjoyable

Remember that getting used to the new routine of meal times and a variety of new foods is part of growing and learning for your toddler. Try and focus on providing your child with a positive feeding environment. An enjoyable eating atmosphere at mealtimes helps. Encourage your toddler to sit at the table with the family during meals and let them eat what the family eats, he needs to be exposed to a good variety of foods and when he sees you enjoying your meal it will encourage him to also enjoy his.

The freedom of choice

Part of picky eating is your toddler asserting his independence. Let your toddler be involved in his food choices. Avoid giving your child free reign, but allow them to choose between two healthy options. This will help your toddler to feel more in control and willing to eat the food.

Introducing new foods

When your baby refuses textured foods this doesn’t mean he dislikes it. Children need time to adjust and explore new tastes and textures. Spitting out his first pureed foods is part of his learning and adjusting to a new way of eating. Later on, spitting out purees can be your baby’s way of telling you he is ready to progress to finger foods. Allow your baby to start experimenting with soft finger foods like cooked pieces of vegetable and soft ripe fruit. This may be messy, but it is a very important stage and a great way to encourage better intake. Remember, it can take between 15 to 20 exposures to a new food before your baby gets used to it and accepts it. Offer new foods alongside favourites to help keep the meal enjoyable and ensure something is eaten.

Structured routine is important

Make sure that your toddler gets his meals and snacks at regular times each day. This ensures that they have a good appetite at meal and snack times. Try to limit the amount of juice offered and restrict milk to a maximum of 500ml / day. This will ensure that the child isn’t filled up and thus hungry at mealtimes. Praise him when he does eat his food but don’t give too much attention to food refusal. In many cases all the fuss created when food is refused can encourage this behaviour.

Don’t force it

There’s no denying that food refusal can be very stressful, constantly causing worry about if they have had enough or what to do to make them eat more. However, forcing them or shouting at them is not the best way of handling this stressful situation. Force-feeding your child creates a negative association with those foods and mealtimes and just makes the problem worse.

When to seek help

If your child has excluded a full food group for an extended period; taking only a small number of foods or totally excluding certain textures it may be worth seeking professional advice. Your dietitian or doctor can recommend a nutritional supplement to help meet nutritional requirements while the fussiness persists. E.g. Pediasure, S26 PE gold. If your child is not growing well as a result of limited intake, accepted foods can also be fortified or enriched by adding proteins or fats to make them as energy dense as possible.

Persevere most picky / fussy eaters start eating better over time.

Written by Claire McHugh – BSc (Dietetics) RD – Specialist Pediatric Dietitian

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