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Parent's guide to fussy eating

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Mealtimes are often a time when children learn that they can gain some control over their parents. Parents may become concerned that their child is not eating enough and frustrated when their child refuses food and/or demand alternative meals.

Most children go through a phase of eating a very limited range of food, partly due to ‘food neophobia’ – fear of new foods. Fussy eating is a normal phase of a child’s development, and it is important that you try not to get anxious at mealtimes.

If allowed to do so, your child will take in just enough calories for their own needs, so you should always respect your child’s decision that they have had enough to eat. Try not to fret too much about what your child eats at a single meal, or in a single day. Instead, think about what your child eats over a week.

These tips are designed to help, support and develop good eating behaviour.

What food should I offer and how much?

  • Offer small portions of nutritious foods regularly – work out a daily routine of three meals and two to three snacks that fits around your child’s daytime sleep pattern.
  • Offer your child the same foods as the rest of the family (avoid separate meals). You need to act as a role model, make positive comments and remember don’t expect your child to eat more than they need.
  • At lunch and dinner offer your child two courses, a savoury and desert/pudding (fruit and yoghurt or fruit crumble and custard). This offers your child two opportunities to take in the calories and nutrients they need and will allow them to experience a wider range of food at each meal.
  • If your child is struggling with particular textures try other foods with similar nutrients. For example yoghurt instead of milk, mince instead of chewy meat, raw or grated vegetables instead of cooked, egg instead of meat.
  • Avoid giving drinks or snacks one hour before meals.
  • Limit fruit juice to once a day (dilute one part juice to 10 parts water) and offer water rather than fizzy or cordial drinks.

Environment

  • Eat as a family where possible
  • Eat away from distractions such as the TV, pets, games and toys. Distractions will make it more difficult for your toddler to concentrate on eating.
  • Try to make mealtime’s calm and relaxed, chat about things other than eating.
  • Set a good example, eat healthy foods and try not to make negative comments about foods you dislike.
  • Encourage your child to begin to feed themselves once they are nearly one, but be at their side ready to assist them.
  • Ensure your child is sitting at a table. They will find it easier to concentrate on eating if they are not allowed to move around or get down from the table whilst eating.

Set time frames

  • Allow a relaxed time frame of 20-30 minutes for mealtimes and 10-15 for snacks – don’t sit at the table trying to persuade your child to eat more.
  • If your child doesn’t eat well, take the uneaten food away without comment – accept that they have had enough.
  • Wait for the next snack or meal and offer some nutritious food then.
  • Ask everyone in the family and anyone else who feeds your child, such as nursery staff or child minder to follow your approach and routine.

Exploring food

  • Try different foods and give your child time to explore and familiarise themselves with new food
  • Involve your child in food shopping so they can see what you are buying and perhaps help you to choose the fruit and vegetables
  • Let your child explore new foods, encourage involvement with food choices and allow them to serve themselves from a choice of healthy options.
  • Allow your child some choice in selecting foods, for example let them choose between two types of fruit or between two sandwich fillings.
  • Allow your child to touch their food, play with it if they want to, children enjoy having the control of feeding themselves.

How will I know if my child is full?

Your child is letting you know they have had enough to eat, of a particular food, course or meal when they are:

  • Keeping their mouth shut when offered food
  • Saying ‘no'
  • Turning their head away from the food being offered
  • Pushing away the spoon, bowl or plate containing food
  • Holding food in their mouth and refusing to swallow it
  • Spitting food out repeatedly
  • Leaning out of the high chair or trying to climb out
  • Crying, shouting or screaming
  • Gagging or retching.

Is there anything I shouldn't do?

Don’t coax, bribe or plead with your child to eat more.

A little gentle encouragement is ok, but never insist that they finish everything on their plate, don’t start to spoon feed them or force spoonful’s into their mouth – this can make them anxious and frightened about food, it can also encourage them to eat more than they need.

Don’t take away a refused meal and offer a different one in its place.

Your child will soon take advantage if you do! Offer family meals and accept that your child will prefer some foods to other. Always try to include in each meal one food that you know they will eat.

Don’t offer the sweet course as a reward for eating the first course.

By doing this you will make the sweet course seem more desirable than the savoury one.

Don’t offer large drinks of milk an hour before a meal

Large quantities of milk can spoil their appetite, your child needs between 350-500mls of milk a day. Phase out bottles so that your child drinks from a cup or beaker.

Don’t offer snacks just before or just after a meal

If your child hasn’t eaten well at the main meal don’t offer a snack straight after, it is best to stick to a set meal pattern. Wait until the next snack or meal before offering food again.

Don’t assume that because your child has refused a food he will never eat it again.

Tastes change over time, remember that some children need to be offered a new food 10 to 15 times before they feel confident to try it, so place a small amount of a new food on their place several times and you may find they will eat it eventually.

Don’t feel guilty if one meal turns into a disaster.

Put it behind you and approach the next meal positively, you and your child are on a learning curve – your child is learning to try new flavours and textures and you are learning to cope with tricky mealtimes.

What should I do if I'm still worried?

  • Make a list of all the food and drink your child has over a week – check that your child has had food from the four main groups; carbohydrates (bread, potatoes, rice etc.), protein (meat, fish, eggs, beans etc.); dairy produce(milk, cheese, yoghurt etc.) and fruits and vegetables, if they have eaten from each group don’t worry.
  • Talk to your health visitor or GP – they can check their weight and height and can usually reassure you that everything is alright
  • Contact your local children centre for support and advice.