Have you got a fussy eater at home? At your wit’s end trying to ensure they are getting healthy, balanced meals? Children’s behavioural specialist Alicia Eaton, shares 13 expert tips to help you with your picky eaters from her book Words That Work: How to Get Kids to Do Almost Anything.
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One of the most maddening aspects of life for countless parents is food fussiness or picky eaters. Millions of parents will recognise the feeling of despair when a lovingly cooked meal is met with tears and flat out refusal. As the inevitable, often near daily food fights end, the big question you’ll have asked yourself over and over again is “what can you do?”
Children’s fussiness is a very sensitive issue and parenting expert Alicia Eaton and author of Words that Work – How to Get Kids to Do Almost Anything says it’s important to break down the habits, behaviours and the anxiety that are associated with meal-time.
As well as thinking about what we put on our plates, we need to understand that when, how, and why we eat, all have an impact on our children’s view on food too.
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Tips for Dealing with Picky Eaters
#1. Are You a Good Role Model for your Child?
- Are you constantly on a diet and worrying about your own food intake?
- Do you spend days on juice detoxes and saying out loud what you can and can’t eat?
- Do you get transfixed upon which foods are ‘good’ and which are ‘bad’?
Even if your children are small, they will be listening and taking the information in.
#2. Create a Confident Dialogue Around Food
Involve your child in every stage of the planning process around meals.
- Look at cookery books together.
- Make shopping lists (encourage children to draw pictures on the shopping list).
- Shop for food together.
- Ask them to help prepare food and chop veg.
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#3. Draw up a Weekly Menu Plan with the Family & Stick to it
Allow each child to choose their favourite meal and incorporate these into a weekly timetable. Agreeing in advance what you’ll be eating throughout the week will help you to stay calm, more organised and less likely to cave in to protests.
Your child will learn that it’s simply not possible to have their favourite dish every day, as you are accommodating everyone else’s needs too. You’ll be able to eliminate arguments by responding with:
“Yes, I know tonight’s dinner is not your favourite but we all agreed we’d be eating this today – it’s written down in our menu plan. Tomorrow, it’s going to be your favourite dish, remember?”
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#4. Introduce a Tasting Plate
Create a tasting plate to encourage your picky eaters to try new food types.
- Offer pureed, tiny dollops of new foods going round the plate in a pretty pattern.
- Experiment with alternate colours and ensure there’s one of each colour for each person at the table. Include adults in this game.
- Pass the plate around the table and each person uses their finger to scoop up the blob and eat it.
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#5. Create a Starter
While you are busying yourself with the main event, place some ramekins or small bowls in the centre of the table with a selection of chopped veg (such as carrots, mange tout, sliced avocado, cucumber, or beetroot) and dips. Each child could take a vegetable stick and get on with dipping whilst you’re putting the finishing touches to the next course.
You could even do this at breakfast time too. This time the ramekin in the middle could hold pieces of fruit to be nibbled before their boiled egg and toast
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#6. Introduce Themed Dinners
Tasting new foods can be something that’s enjoyed by all the family.
The meal could be Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, French, Italian or any other theme you can think of. You can not only include unusual foods, but also play music and dress up accordingly whilst exploring the culture of that particular place. You could even invite friends and turn it into a party!
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#7. Present Food on Smaller Plates
Presenting their food on smaller plates will feel less overwhelming to your child.
Plus, as soon as they start finishing everything on their plates, they’ll come to see themselves as ‘good eaters’ rather than ‘picky eaters’, and this would be progress indeed.
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#8. Good News Only
Have a house rule that only good news will get discussed at mealtimes – there’ll be no moaning or whingeing. It’s a habit that can be hard to get out of. We seem to naturally focus on the worst things that happened in the day, like:
- The bus was late
- I got a parking ticket today
- I’ve got lots of work to do this evening
- I had a horrible lunch at school
- So-and-so pushed me over and I scuffed my arm
- I came last in the swimming race
This type of conversation introduces an element of anxiety that will reduce your child’s appetite and foster a sense of foreboding each time you all sit down together.
Aim to keep mealtimes positive, rather than laying the groundwork for them to become a complete battleground, for this sort of negativity instantly creates bad vibes around the table.
Tension and stress reduces appetites, and with a fussy eater in your midst that is the last thing you need.
#9. Show and Tell
Take turns to invite friends round and have exploration parties – ask them to bring really unusual foods. Talk about where in the world they come from and show pictures of the country of origin and the people.
Fussy eaters get on better if sitting with their friends and will often try things they’d never countenance in the past.
#10. Same but Different
Explore and discuss different varieties of the same product, such as tomatoes. There are cherry ones, big red ones, yellow ones, green ones, plum shaped, big fat beef ones and those that are still ‘on the vine’- and there are even some that have stripes like tigers!
How are they the same and how are they different? Explore other foods that belong to the same group but are very different – e.g. apples, berries, nuts, cheeses and breads.
You can explore kiwi fruits by stroking and feeling their hairy skins brushed against your child’s cheek. Let them listen to what it sounds like when you rub the skin next to their ear. Cut one open widthways so they can see the seed formation and then cut another open lengthways so they notice how the seed formation looks different.
Ask “What shapes and patterns can you see? How does it feel? Is it soft between your fingers?”
And finally, very much finally:
“How does it taste? Some foods are soft and squidgy while some are hard and crunchy. Which is this one?”
Let them just explore and have fun.
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#11. Guess the Food
Blindfold your child and ask them to explore foods on the touch and smell.
- What is the food?
- How do they know?
- If they don’t like having a blindfold on, then use a small bag (drawstring wash bags are good for this) to disguise the food and let them dip their hands into the bag and guess that way.
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#12. Get Messy
Some children simply don’t like the feel and texture of slimy foods. For these children it is a great idea to involve them in messy activities elsewhere.
Encourage them to try anything from playing with sand, finger painting, mud or clay modelling.
#13. Finally, Remain Calm
The most important attitude to take at mealtimes is for you, as a parent, to remain calm. Your child will not miraculously turn into the World’s Best Eater overnight and it is not fair to expect them to either.
By the same token though, stay positive and avoid falling into the trap of giving up too.
Parents often withdraw food that has been offered and rejected and never cook it again. The train of thought is: if they don’t like it now, they aren’t going to like it next time.
This simply isn’t the case. Resolve to keep introducing rejected foods. If the child doesn’t want to taste the food then encourage them to touch it, smell it, roll it between fingers and describe what they see.
Again, it won’t happen overnight, but you will see a change.
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About Alicia Eaton
Alicia Eaton, Children’s Behavioural Specialist, is a fully qualified Psychotherapist, Clinical Hypnotherapist and Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) Practitioner based in London’s Harley Street, helping both adults and children change habits and behaviours for the better.
For more information, read her book Words That Work: How to Get Kids to Do Almost Anything or see www.success-4-kids.com.
Originally a Montessori Teacher who ran her own school, she’s also the best-selling author of Fix Your Life with NLP (Simon & Schuster) and Stop Bedwetting in 7 Days which is recommended by NHS paediatricians.