Q: My four-year-old only eats a limited number of foods, won't try anything new and is generally fussy. How can I get her to try other things and be more positive about food?
TG, West Yorkshire.
A: Fussy eating in children is very normal and equally frustrating (especially when you've just spent two hours carefully crafting a meal you're absolutely, totally sure they'll like, only for it to end up in the bin).
Interestingly, there's a theory which suggests your daughter might actually be quite smart for sticking with her narrow range of foods, as some experts believe fussy eating in children originates from a survival instinct. By only consuming the familiar, hunter gatherer children would avoid eating the wrong type of berry and being poisoned.
Another idea is that children who are especially tricky with foods have more sensitive taste buds than others, so strong flavours seem overwhelming to them.
Whatever the underlying causes might or might not be, there's also very often a layer of behavioural issues involved too – fussy eating can be a way of a child exerting their independence, trying to be in control, or getting a bit of extra attention.
So what can you do?
I'm going to be upfront here in that there's a lot you can do to try to sort this out, but it won't necessarily fix things totally. You might be able to get your daughter to be slightly more adventurous but there's no way to ensure she suddenly starts enthusiastically sampling half the supermarket deli shelf.
First up, what you shouldn't do:
Don't make her something else.
I know it can be tempting to make children an alternative if they refuse the first meal you've prepared but don't. You aren't running a restaurant and by doing this, you'll let her think she can rule the dinnertime roost.
Nutritionist Sally Child, who's the author of Dealing with Difficult Eaters, says:
"If they refuse to eat a meal, don't offer anything else until the next scheduled snack or meal and quietly remove the leftover food (you can scream later!)"
If you really, really can't let your daughter go hungry, give her something quite dull like bread and butter to tide her over.
Don't force her to try things if she really doesn't want to.
You should also never force a child to eat a food they don't want to – it will surely turn into a battle of wills. Nor should you punish them for not eating.
Avoid negative comments and assumptions about what your child will or won't like.
Sometimes parents or other carers will assume that children won't like a particular food which they view as 'grown-up' or that they will always prefer a 'kiddy meal', for example, chicken nuggets instead of a proper roast. This simply puts ideas into their heads. So avoid saying things such as 'you probably won't like this' or thinking that all children hate vegetables.
Stop any cajoling and hide your frustration.
Saying 'just try it' is a sure fire way to ensure most kids won't. It simply doesn't work. See below for more effective strategies.
Also, don't let her see how annoyed you are as you scrape that lovingly-crafted lasagna into the bin!
Respect there will be some things your child genuinely doesn't like.
One thing I feel very strongly about is making sure we respect that everyone has a few things they don't much like the taste or texture of. I detest aubergines for example.
If we grown-ups aren't going to eat absolutely all foods, why shouldn't children be allowed some reasonable preferences?
A fantastic strategy which can remove some of the stress involved in all this, for both sides, is to sit down with your daughter and have a 'fresh start', saying that you accept there are some things she'd rather not eat. She can even have a list of say, five foods or meals she hates which you won't expect her to eat any more. (Obviously these must be vaguely reasonable - some guidance will be needed if she says 'meat, fish, vegetables') Under this deal, everything else she has to at least try.
And have a rule about not being able to say they don't like something if they've never actually tried it!
Get her involved with cooking and food shopping.
If you haven't done so already, visit a pick-your-own farm so she can see vegetables at source, get her to help choose some recipes and prepare the meal together sometimes. By involving children in food preparation, they can become curious about trying some of the results of their efforts.
Offer choices but keep them narrow.
This helps provide them with a feeling of being involved and having some control but again needs to be handled carefully - the key is to keep options narrow. If you ask 'what do you want for dinner', most children will request a favourite which is probably not that healthy. Instead, give a more closed-ended choice such as 'would you like pasta or roast chicken?'.
Eat the foods you'd like your child to try with enthusiasm and she might just start to wonder what all the fuss is about. (Warning: this only goes so far – if you're oohing and aahing over the Brussels sprouts she will probably see through it.)
That old chestnut about spinach making you strong like Popeye, and related claims, as long as they're not too outlandish and vaguely true, are always good with four-year-olds (later on they become too cynical for all that).
You can also employ the hard to argue with 'if you hadn't tried chocolate ice cream, you'd never have known how much you loved it' line.
Make sampling new foods positive.
Get a fondue set out with cheese sauce and different vegetables to try (if you don't have one, stick the sauce in bowls) - kids adore dipping and dunking their food so much they might well start reaching for the courgettes.
One dad to fussy eaters I know went as far as organising (occasional) themed meals, such as Chinese. The kids made menus, and dressed up and he introduced a few new foods each time. It might be a bit OTT but can work by making the whole experience fun.
Promise that if she genuinely tries a bit of whatever and doesn't like it, there won't be any pressure to eat the rest.
Sometimes children get worried that if they try one mouthful, they will have to eat it all, even if they hate the taste. Hotel and party buffets are great for this – kids can take a little bit, and if they don't like whatever it was, it's not the end of the world.
If despite these efforts, things don't improve with your daughter, do rest assured that, frustrating though this is, fussy eating is rarely a health issue and children can thrive on a surprisingly narrow range of foods.
And remember that even if things don't get better in the short term, she probably will grow out of it at some stage. Notwithstanding the odd person who turns up on a TV documentary, how many grown-ups do you know who refuse to eat anything but plain pasta/ chips/ crisps?
Liat Hughes Joshi is author of Raising Children: The Primary Years.
Have you had a fussy eater? Any more tips and advice for our readers?
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