While fussy eating is a challenge that nearly every parent will struggle with, there can be a line where this crosses into problem eating/feeding. When this happens, it is important to persevere and find a health professional that your child feels good spending time with. A paediatric dietitian may be able to work with your child and your family to help get past this tricky stage.
Dr. Justin Coulson says that there are a few meal-time mistakes that many parents make, which might make matters worse:
1. Putting on the pressure
Children will have their own natural way of eating, but when we get anxious about their diet, we often try to force them to eat differently. This kind of pressure only makes children resist more as they struggle for autonomy.
It’s easier said than done, but to reduce pressure on your child, parents will do best to let go of their own anxieties about their child’s eating (and their own), and simply allow a healthy relationship with food to develop.
2. A, B, C or D?
While it is important for children to have choice at meal times, providing them with too many options can also be counterproductive. One way of offering limited choice is by choosing what they eat, but allowing them to choose when they eat it and even how they eat it. Children’s appetites fluctuate from day to day, but we need to trust that they will feed themselves what they need to grow and develop.
3. Joining the Clean Plate Club
Forcing children to eat everything on their plate can cause them to develop a “cue to stop eating” that relies on simply finishing their meal, rather than stopping when they’re full. This is a combination of mistakes 1 & 2 above, and can cause all sorts of eating and weight problems later in life.
4. The shame game
Though shame is definitely not a technique used by many parents nowadays, there is research that tells us it is still far too common. A study of over 2000 American women revealed something remarkable: girls who were told by a parent, sibling, friend, classmate, or teacher that they are too fat at age 10 were more likely to be obese at age 19. Just being told those words – “You’re too fat” – was enough to tip kids over the edge.
5. Rewarding with food
Whether this is because they did something for us – like eating all their dinner – or we’re trying to offer them something to calm down, these rewards usually promote the “wrong” foods as desireable. They also suppress appetite for when good food will be served. Plus, they teach kids that they can get what they want for doing things that probably shouldn’t be rewarded.
All of these strategies ultimately come back to one word … control. To avoid control, parents can provide guidelines and allow autonomy within those guidelines. Some of the ways we might do this include:
- Be a good role model
- Avoid controlling strategies including bribing, rewarding, punishing, or anything your child might see as manipulative
- Focus on healthy habits rather than calories, weight, shape or size
- Explain your rationale
- Be patient and support their choice as to when and how much they eat (but maintain some control on what they eat)
- When you serve a meal, ensure it contains at least something wholesome they’ll eat happily
As a rule, these strategies will generally be helpful in typical fussy-eating situations. Patience and acceptance are critical. If, however, you are not having any success in spite of these suggestions, seek help.