Since I’ve started posting my kids’ lunchboxes and some of our meals on Instagram, plenty of people have asked me, ‘Do your kids eat all that?!’ Short answer is ‘no’ (do you feel better already?!). Sometimes the vegetables come home uneaten. Sometimes I serve up a nutritious meal that they refuse to eat. I actually find it quite funny that people now comment how well my children eat, because at our most fussy, believe me it was terrible. Long story very short, my twins (now 7) would once only eat bread, pasta, weetbix, crackers, fruit and yoghurt. One in particular had sensory issues with food that were so severe he would run screaming from the table if meat or vegetables were on his plate. So I’m telling you, if I can get my kids to eat ‘well’, you can too. I have sought professional help with feeding (dietician and feeding therapist), I have read every article out there, I have completed short courses. This is a list of things that have worked for us – give them a try and let me know how you go.
- Try not to refer to your child as fussy or picky. Labels stick. Don’t say Johnny doesn’t like carrots. Instead ask Johnny if he’d like to try carrots today.
- Keep offering new or unfamiliar foods. Just because your child doesn’t like it now, doesn’t mean they never will. If you only ever offer vegemite sandwiches, they will only ever eat vegemite sandwiches. Explain that our tastebuds change as we grow up, so we need to keep checking to see what we like. My boys get quite excited to try a food they haven’t previously liked to see if their tastebuds have changed yet. I would also suggest menu planning so that if you offer something new or something you know is a challenge for them one night, you offer a preferred food the next night.
- When offering something new, make sure there is a preferred food on the plate. Trying new foods can be overwhelming for some children, so they need a safe place to start. If my favourite sausage is on the same plate as that zucchini fritter, maybe that zucchini fritter is ok.
- For very fussy eaters, it is often easier to start with meals that keep foods separate, rather than stews, stir fries, fried rice or casserole type meals where foods are mixed together and can be overwhelming. Serving family style where food is in the centre of the table and each person chooses what goes on their plate is also amazing. Tacos are a great example of this style of meal.
- Use a learning bowl. If your child is reticent to try new foods, the first step is to allow those foods on their plate. A smaller bowl to the side can be used for the child to put anything they’re not ready to eat. This gives the child control and can avoid meltdowns over what is served. Calling it a learning bowl reinforces that while we might not like it now, we will learn to like it one day when we’re ready.
- If your child doesn’t want to eat a new food, ask them just to give it a kiss. This can remove some of the fear some children experience regarding new food by adding a humour element. It’s also a positive interaction with that food and it gets the child to practise lifting the food to their mouth, even if they are not going to eat it this time.
- Don’t make alternative meals. If you’re already following tip #3, your child should have found something to eat. If you start making alternative meals, your child will expect you to.
- Stay positive. Try not to get emotional or upset if your child refuses to eat. There is not much that your child is able to control about their environment, but what they eat is one such thing. If they learn that not eating gets a big reaction, that is a big playing card for them.
- Get your children involved in menu planning and shopping. Take your child to the farmer’s market or the grocer and get them to pick the vegetables for dinner. Be sure to tell them what a great choice they made at dinner time. Kids who are involved in the shopping and planning are more likely to try the food presented. Allowing each member of the family to choose one night’s dinner shows the child that everyone’s preferences are equally valued. Your little one’s desire for pizza is equally important as your request for lentils.
- Talk to your children about the value of different foods to their body. We all know about carrots being good for our eyes, dairy for our bones, carbohydrates for energy, protein for our muscles, oily fish and avocados for our brains, ferments like yoghurt, kombucha or sauerkraut for happy tummies. It doesn’t hurt to tell your child that their favourite footy player loves the vegetables you are serving, or call a green smoothie a ‘Hulk smoothie’. Fast food and packaged food retailers know the value of good marketing – get on board!
- Make eating fun! While it’s not possible all of the time, when the weather is nice, eat outside or go for a picnic. It’s amazing what children will do when you mix up their environment. If the kitchen table has become a battleground, break that cycle.
- Try putting foods on skewers. Don’t know why, but kids love things on a stick! A tasty dip can also be a good way to get children to try fresh veggies.
- If your child has a buddy who is a good eater, invite them around for a meal. Use peer group pressure to your advantage!
- Don’t bargain with food. The old “if you eat dinner, then you can have dessert” can lead to overeating and also creates a mentality of sweet foods as a ‘reward’. If your child has eaten very little and is demanding dessert, perhaps instead say that the rest of the family has not yet finished and they must wait at the table. Waiting at the table may be boring enough for them to eat a bit more. If your child hasn’t eaten much dinner, put their plate aside and calmly reproduce it when they say they’re hungry an hour later. “I noticed you didn’t eat very much so I saved your dinner in case you were hungry later”. Frame it as a kindness, not a punishment. In our house, dessert is usually yoghurt with fresh fruit and it is given regardless of how much dinner was consumed.
- Try using flavours that your child already likes. For example, if they like bolognese, try a slow cooked chicken or a lentil stew that uses the same core flavours – onion, garlic, tomato, oregano, thyme, bay leaf.
- If you notice your child is really hungry at 4pm, switch things up and serve dinner at 4pm and a lighter snack later in the evening. Take advantage of hunger.
- Eat with your kids. I know this is not always possible, but being a good role model cannot be underestimated. Little boys are particularly influenced by what daddy eats, so if you can manage at least a Sunday meal together, this will be a great help. If eating together is only happening once a week, make sure it’s a heavy veggie meal!
- If your child has restricted their diet for a while, they may have nutritional deficiencies. It is best to discuss this with a professional, but a simple zinc deficiency can impact appetite as well as behaviour. Foods high in zinc include meat, poultry, dairy products, beans, whole grains and nuts. Simply addressing a zinc deficiency can hugely improve appetite.
- There is a division of responsibility in feeding kids. It’s your job to put healthy options on the table or in the lunchbox, it’s their job to choose what they will eat from the options provided. If they don’t eat what you made, let it go.
Stay strong! Your consistency WILL pay off!
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