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Fussy Eating: 3 common mistakes parents make with fussy eaters - By Penelope Henderson RNutr

Fussy Eating: 3 common mistakes parents make with fussy eaters - By Penelope Henderson RNutr

Feb 27, 2023Charlotte Thompson

3 common mistakes parents make with fussy eaters

There are three common mistakes I often see parents making when it comes to their fussy child. These often have an impact on the child's relationship with food, food choices and can make fussy eating worse or prolonged.

This blog explores these three mistakes which include, applying pressure to your child and what this looks like, not following a schedule or meal routine and thirdly providing short order meals or foods the child wants consistently. I will also share my tips on how to respond and deal with these so your child can start to overcome fussy eating.

What is fussy eating?
There is no one single agreed definition of what fussy eating is as it can look different in every
child and the extent of fussiness. However there are some common signs you can look for.
These include:
● Unwilling to eat familiar foods and not try new foods.
● Strong food preferences, resulting in little variety in the diet e.g a particular colour or
● Food neophobia - which is a fear of trying new foods (1)

Is fussy eating normal?
Fussy eating is very common and for most children its a phase that typically starts in the
toddler/pre school years or around 3 years of age. (2). It usually begins to get better after this
but can be more prolonged or carry on for much longer depending on how it's dealt with.
Around ¼ to ⅓ of all children will go through some feeding issues between birth - 10 years.
Although only roughly half of these children will outgrow their fussy eating/picky eating. (3)
The good news is lots can be done to help fussy eaters get better at eating new foods and enjoy a more varied diet. It can just take time so don’t expect any overnight miracles.

3 common mistakes
1. Pressure to eat
When we are so desperate to get our child to eat its so easy to slip into giving pressure to eat
without even realising. I’m guilty of it too!

Picture this common situation of everyone just coming to sit down to a lovely home cooked meal like cottage pie with some peas that you loving spent an hour in the kitchen making because you thought they would eat it. You serve it up and their first reaction is ‘I don't want that or I don't like that! Accompanied by lots of whining and moaning.

So you respond to your child with ‘I have spent a lot of time making this. I thought you liked
peas. Just try a bit’. This is meant with good intentions in the hope they will eat it and they may
or may not eat to please you but they don't really want to eat it.

This is actually pressure to eat and by asking your child to eat something it can have the
opposite effect of making them more resistant to eat it and start creating a power struggle to get them to eat. Or they may please you and eat some but they are only eating to please you and
not eating because they want to and this is more likely to happen again at another mealtime.
Pressure can take many forms, like the above which is persuasion. Other forms of pressure
include; bribing or rewarding, coaxing and forcing. Bribing with a treat or pudding by saying you can have some pudding if you eat your peas is another common way to get children to eat. The trouble with this form of pressure is that they learn that the pudding is far more desirable than the other food and will eat to get their pudding. (4) There are better ways to manage these situations which are discussed further on.

2. Not providing a mealtime routine
A mealtime routine is simply the times you set out to have 3 meals and 2 - 3 snacks scheduled throughout the day. If your meal times vary massively from day to day or there is not consistency with meal and snack times then there won’t be a regular mealtime routine in place.

By not providing a meal time routine it makes it harder for us parents to keep on track of when their last snack or meal was. Also the child doesn’t know when to expect their next meal or snack.

Children benefit from having a routine with meals just like a school routine. This helps them to develop regular patterns of appetite if meals and snacks are timed appropriately and also so they are eating regularly throughout the day. (5)

3. Being a short order cook
Being a short order cook means giving children the meals they want so cooking or preparing
meals to their order. This often happens when the child won’t eat the meals prepared for the
family and then gets a different meal made for them. It can also mean if they don’t eat their meal at that particular meal time and then get something else to eat later on.

It' easy to do this when we get worried they haven’t eaten enough or worry they will wake in
the night hungry. We can feel like bad parents for not feeding them well or giving them enough
and this can drive us to giving them meals they want.
Remember, you're not alone and it's very common to do short order meals when you don't know
what else to do.

However, there are other ways of dealing with fussy eaters and here I will share some tips on
how to make them eat better so your not having battles at every meal time.
What are 3 tips for dealing with a picky eater?

Always offer something they like (safe food)
If they have at least one food for a meal they like then you know they will eat it and you're less
likely to give pressure to eat. You could always offer a choice for a vegetable, saying would you
like peas or carrots for dinner. If they struggle with eating vegetables or new foods you could have these on a separate plate (learning plate) so they are not feeling the pressure to eat what's on their plate. Put all the meals on the table at once, for example, main course and pudding. This way it shows that all foods provided are equal and your not bribing them with pudding. They can eat it in
whatever order and how much they want by leaving it up to them and not applying pressure.

Have a mealtime routine
A mealtime routine will help your child to regulate themselves and provide regular opportunities to eat when they are hungry.
These times don’t have to be really precise. Within the half hour is a good idea.
So for example a mealtime routine could look something like this:

Breakfast 7.30 - 8am,
Snack 10- 10.30am
Lunch 12.30 - 1pm
Snack 3 - 3.30pm
Dinner 5 - 5.30pm

The number of snacks will depend on your child and their age. Younger children often require a snack in the evening too. Also by allowing a few hours between snacks and meals it will be
enough time for them to be hungry but not overly hungry and more likely to eat.

Don’t be a short order cook
Being a short order cook can limit the variety of foods and meals your child gets, impacting on their nutrition. You're only providing meals they request and children will only ask for what they like rather than what they need. Instead, try following the Division of Responsibility (DoR) in feeding. This splits the division of responsibility between the parents and child. So the parents' job is to decide where, when and what to provide for meals and snacks. So decide on somewhere to eat, ideally at a kitchen table and when, so what times you give them meals and snacks using your mealtime routine. Whereas the child's job is to decide whether they want to eat the meals and snacks and how much. This allows us to trust the child in responding to their internal cues for hunger and fullness. (6) This doesn’t mean you don’t have to offer choice but as a guided choice so they are having some control. For example, offer a choice of vegetables if they are fussy such as ‘would you like beans or broccoli’.

Fussy eating is a typical phase that most children go through. By avoiding these three common mistakes (applying pressure to eat, not having a meal time routine and being a short order cook) it's possible to help fussy eaters become better at eating. By learning how to apply no pressure, having a meal time routine and using the division of responsibility then you're well on your way to seeing them eat better and all enjoying meal times again.

3. Tooney and associates 2019,

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