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Kids Becoming Increasingly Picky Eaters? Ten Ways to Gently Break the Cycle

27/06/2016 17:09 | Updated 27 June 2016

He used to love broccoli, now he won't touch it! If it's not beige, she won't even allow it on the plate. Beans were her favourite last week but now she's beside herself because there's one bean in her spaghetti hoops. They love veggies at nursery, but at home they will only eat fish fingers.

Familiar? Just when you feel like you've got over the fussy eating hurdle, you find yourself right back at square one. It's normal with kids and can happen for all sorts of reasons. They might be feeling under the weather, they might just be at the 'no' stage, they might have got comfortable with a diet of 'treat' food during a family holiday, or they might have reasons that, in their minds, seem totally reasonable for not wanting to eat their soup because it has 'green dots' (herbs) in it.

Whatever the reasons, in the vast majority of cases it's completely possible to bring children to (or back to) a healthy, adventurous attitude to food.

I'm not an expert in child nutrition, but I do have years of experience catering for my own children: a four year old daughter with a long history of chronic throat infections, and an eight year old son on the autistic spectrum.

Make 'new' the norm

For my son, unfamiliarity of colour, texture or flavour presents the most regular challenge. In particular, a familiar food presented in an unfamiliar way can cause issues, such as if he's used to breaded fish, but I serve it 'naked'.

The trick for us is to change things up often, the logic being, if he never gets the chance to get too set in his ways with food, then trying something new is the norm.

Show the process, reduce the shock

Have you ever put plates of lovingly prepared, healthy food in front of the kids only for their eyes to widen in horror as they ask, 'What IS it?'. Yeah, me too. And it stings!

I've figured out over the years that it really helps to have the kids involved in the prep. Whether it's helping grate the cheese, helping stir the cold ingredients, kneading the bread or pouring the pie fillings into their cases, they're much more likely to be comfortable with the finished result if they have seen what goes into their meal.

Plus, of course, if they've helped along the way, they'll hopefully feel proud enough of their efforts to want to enjoy their meal.

Set a good example

I'm vegetarian, so my plate is always piled high with greens, but my husband will be the first to admit that he was not really keen on salad or veg before we met.

He wasn't veg-phobic, but if he was making a meal for himself, the chances of anything green appearing on the plate were pretty slim.

And then he became a dad, and we realised that if we were to expect the kids to eat a healthy, balanced diet, everyone else at the table needed to do the same.

Any child psychology resource will tell you that kids learn significant behaviours from the role models around them, so we try to be good role models, even if we'd rather be eating chips instead of peas.

Too much choice can be counterproductive

I'm really not a believer in telling a child to eat what their given or starve, but I do think that too much choice can also leave them in a spin, especially if they're the type of child who, like my son, often thinks there's a right answer that you're expecting them to give.

We avoid open questions like, "What do you want to eat?" and instead aim for just a couple of choices, both of which constitute something they really like (eg pasta) but only as part of a balanced plate.

Introduce the 'no plate without veg' rule

When Mark and I both happened to find ourselves on big projects at work at the same time, we realised we were too often to be seen with a bowl of canned soup or a 'quick sandwich', our five a day was looking more like 0.5 a day.

We realised it was also impacting on how we were feeding the kids. "Spaghetti on toast, you say, kids? Awesome! That only takes five minutes!"

So, we made a quick family rule that you can't have a plate without salad or veg on it. You can have a sandwich, canned soup or something else 'quick' now and then, but there always has to be some veg on the plate.

To be honest, more often that not I realised if I was getting out the veg for the side of the plate, I might as well put a quick casserole or veg-packed pasta sauce together and so generally, this rule keeps us on the right track.

Don't let your stress show

There was a period a couple of years ago, when my daughter's throat was really sore every other week and, probably as a consequence, she didn't want anything other than pasta in a creamy sauce. No veg, no variety, one colour: beige.

After a few weeks, it's started to really worry me. I kept thinking about her developing brain and organs. One night, I even Googled "impact of malnutrition in toddlers" (note: don't Google it, you'll drive yourself crazy).

And then one day, I heard myself trying to talk her round to a different meal and my voice sounded strained, maybe even a little shrill. I was ignoring all my best advice and letting my worries pass on to her.

That day, we took a step back, we followed the other approaches we knew worked - the ones listed here. And we slowly introduced more challenging colours and textures until she was more comfortable again.

Lesson: a lot of fussy eating can be down to underlying worries or fears. It's vital you work to support and dispel those, rather than contribute to them.

No two children are alike, of course, but these techniques have helped crack fussy eating for our family. And who knows, it might just work for you too.

www.amummytoo.co.uk

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