Top Ten Tips For Surviving Fussy Eating
Serving up tea to fractious youngsters can feel like a thankless task; stuck in a Groundhog Loop of rejections day in, day out. It’s hard not to let the rejections and anxiety about your precious children’s health and development take root when you genuinely think your child is running on fresh air most of the time!
I’ve got three children aged 6, 4 & 3, so I experience my fair share of mealtime drama! Here are my Ten Tips for Surviving Fussy Eating and turning mealtimes into a time for connection and positivity:
1 - MEAL PLAN - Might sound like a chore, but taking half an hour a week to plan your family meals will pay off in droves. I usually use BBC Good Food online for inspiration. You can even include your fussy eater in the meal planning if they’re old enough. They can make requests for agreed safe foods with each meal and can have their favourites once a week or so. Once you have the meals planned, pop the list up somewhere visible. Any time a fussy eater makes a complaint, refer to the list and help to reduce their anxiety with reassurance. Obviously if you have really little ones, this is all pie in the sky, but you can still use the fact that you’ve got a meal plan to buy you time with them in the minutes preceding the meal for some interaction and bonding time (see the beautiful segue into point 2).
2 - WARM UP - Take a little moment before the meal is being served to spend time together. You could play a game or have a cuddle. You’d be surprised at how much of a difference this makes to the transition away from their activity and up to the table. If you’ve got a really hot meal fresh out of the oven, allowing a little cool down time is also a great strategy. Of course, this isn’t always possible, but I believe it’s an extremely effective strategy to reduce the drama at the start of the meal and it’s often overlooked.
3 - BACK OFF SISTER! - Did you know that stress and anxiety suppress appetite? I speak to so many parents who desperately want their children to eat. They can’t believe it when I tell them that my children don’t eat. My kids are just like all the other children out there. One day they’ll like it, the next day they won’t. That’s totally normal. But what’s also become the norm is for parents to think it’s their job to coax and reward. All this does is perpetuate fussy eating. A reward for eating vegetables actually tells the child that you also think the vegetables are disgusting, so why would they go ahead and eat it next time? Especially if they can get a reward for an initial refusal. In all food situations there’s only so much control the parent can actually have - what the food is and where it’s eaten. Whether it’s eaten and how much is eaten has to be left to the child. In the long-term, you will see a huge difference in the mealtime interactions you have with your children and eventually their relationship with food if you just back off and let them make their own decisions about it. And that applies to all ages.
4 - SWITCH THE FOCUS - The collective noun for meerkats is a ‘mob', for owls is a ‘parliament', and for humans it’s a ‘family’. That’s how we roll. And mealtimes are LITERALLY the only time we sit down together face-to-face any more. Before the advent of central heating & televisions, families would commune in the evenings in the only warm room in the house and play card games or read together. All sounds very Pride and Prejudice - it couldn’t be more alien to us to be cooped up in a room together trying to pass the time. And so it’s vital to make mealtimes precious. Especially when research shows that there’s an oxytocin release when meals are eaten together. Studies also show that families who eat together are more likely to have strong relationships throughout the years that lie ahead, that children have greater social wellbeing, more helpful behaviours and better mental health. So, take point 3 & 4 together and shift the emphasis away from the food and focus on how to build positive and happy relationships with each other and the food will follow. See the next points to find out how.
5 - FUNNY TALK - No matter what the age of your children, interesting and silly questions are a great way to make mealtimes more engaging and to make a child really want to join you at the table. I’ve recently been putting my Funny Talk conversation starters on my Instagram and Facebook Stories so that others can enjoy them too. A few examples in ascending age suitability are: What’s your favourite colour? Would you rather be a skunk or a skink? What would you do if you ruled the world for a day?
6 - LAY THE TABLE - Making an effort to make the table look appetising sends a signal to the Family that they matter to you and that this is a special occasion. It may sound like the last thing you want to do when you’re knackered from a day at work and the kids are testing your patience, but it doesn’t need to be more complicated than putting out place mats, plates and cutlery for everyone. I always like to keep everyone’s place at the table the same and the settings matching to ease the friction points. “I wanted the red cup!” may well be the start of some drama that could be avoided.
7 - ADD MUSIC - You may not be big on music, but you may find that your fussy eater rushes to sit at the table if their favourite theme tune is playing! We mix up who chooses the music, but it certainly boosts the children’s enjoyment of the mealtime if they can hear their tunes and has a long-term effect on their desire to come to the table in the future.
8 - SERVE YOURSELF - Serving bowls are your friend. Give each person an empty plate and let them choose what they eat from the food on offer on the table. And if you’re not obsessed with bowls like me, you could simply put the saucepans on the table. I used to insist on a little bit of everything on their plates, but I’ve realised that that’s a friction point for the kids and I needed to let them completely decide for themselves. This also gives you the opportunity to keep the sauce separate and allow a fussy eater to eat plain pasta or dry sausages. Accommodating the fussy eater’s whims is a difficult balance to strike, but the most important aspect in the outset is to make the mealtime experience enjoyable and comfort yourself with the long-term impact it will be having on their relationship with food and also with you.
9 - SNACK - Good snacks are really important. I think they have a bad reputation because people assume it’s all cake and biscuits, but snacks are an essential way to keep children’s moods level. And if they have level moods, they will be more pleasant to be around, especially at the dinner table. Be strategic about your snacks so that you get loads of great nutrients into your child earlier in the day so that when they’re pooped from a long day and just don’t fancy eating at tea time, you can comfort yourself that they’re not going to starve. Savoury snacks like breadsticks, oatcakes or cheese cubes are a great start. You can add a bit of fruit into the mix and you’ve got something that will keep them cheerful all the way through ’til tea!
10 - “THAT’S OK, YOU DON’T HAVE TO EAT ANYTHING YOU DON’T WANT TO” - This is your mantra. If you live by it, things will get better day-by-day, week-by-week, year-by-year. There is simply no magic wand that will fix fussy eating, but if you hand over the control and re-focus your energies on making the mealtime more enjoyable for everyone, you’ll be surviving fussy eating, my friend. In fact, you’ll be doing more than surviving, you’ll be smashing it! BOOM!
Alex Thurman is a nutrition graduate, former primary school teacher and now a mum of three. Feed the Brood started out as a weaning blog, but now has grown into a digital business specialising in fussy eating, recipes and meal plans. She runs 'What’s for Dinner?’ Meal Planning Workshops in the Kent, Surrey, Sussex boarders and her latest project, The MasterPlan, will be released in the summer. The MasterPlan is an 8-week online meal plan for busy families. Using genius shortcuts and strategic batch cooking, Alex’s meal plans will buy you precious time with your family you never knew you had! Sign up to her Newsletter on her website to find out more.