Children refusing to eat what you put in front of them can be stressful for parents. However, independence in meals is completely appropriate for children, as they learn to discriminate based on newly recognized qualities of food, such as taste, texture, presentation, and familiarity.
If you have a fussy eater at home, you’re not alone. I took an informal survey of about 10 parents, and more than half of them identified their children as being fussy eaters.
Fussy children can make meals hectic. Concerns about wasting food and whether your child eats enough “good” food (or even enough food) are common concerns. Subsequent power struggles can make meals a burden. And planning your child’s preferences can be almost impossible.
However, there is good news: Some of the typical behaviors of fussy eaters, such as refusing new foods and times when your child only wants to eat their favorite food are normal.
Based on the experience of my little ones and the dozens of little ones of family friends, with time and repeated exposures, without pressure, most children will accept new foods. You can also breathe easier: the vast majority of children who consider themselves fussy do not really have severely restricted diets or suboptimal growth.
Over the years, here are the strategies we’ve learned that you can use to create happier and healthier meals.
1. Change Your Perception
The first step for exhausted parents is often a change of perception. During the preschool years, slowing growth (compared to the rapid growth seen during childhood and childhood) can affect dietary intake. Psychological changes can also cause kids to, naturally, develop a sense of independence.
As agents of their own preferences and actions, preschoolers prefer to feed themselves. They can develop strong opinions about food.
By labeling our children “fussy”, we are labeling behaviors that are considered appropriate for development as non-conforming.
When we consider that children reject food as nonconforming, interactions with our child during meals often become stressful. We tend to focus on getting our children to comply with our requests, rather than promoting a healthy relationship with food.
Instead of seeing children as non-conforming, we can recognize this display of independence in meals as completely appropriate for their age. Your child will discriminate based on newly recognized qualities of foods, such as taste, texture, presentation, and familiarity.
Focus your attention on encouraging your child’s healthy eating without pressing. Enjoy the time you spend together during meals, instead of focusing on your child’s intake.
2. Accommodate Them
Accommodating your child’s preferences during meals is a win-win situation: They exercise some independence, while also eating the foods you have prepared.
During the meal planning stages, ask your child what she would like to eat during the week or take your child to the grocery store and ask them to choose a vegetable to try.
Accepting children’s preferences does not mean you have to eat chicken fingers every night. If you are serving a spicy Thai dish, consider making a version with fewer spices for your children.
3. Have Children Try New Foods
Don’t press your children to eat foods that they don’t like. It’s okay if your child does not like broccoli. Plenty of adults don’t either.
As with many things, repeated daily exposure, offering non-food rewards for tasting unpleasant foods and parents who eat the same food as the child has shown to be effective methods for helping increase adoption of healthier types of food.
The use of rewards such as stickers can improve the acceptance of new foods by your children and make repeated exhibitions more fun. Praise your child for trying new foods, but stay neutral if they choose not to eat it right away.
4. Establish a Healthy Eating Model
It is also important that you eat with your child when he offers you new foods. You can not expect your child to eat vegetables if you don’t eat them either!
Children with parents who model healthy eating habits have been reported to be less “demanding” and to be more likely to taste unpleasant vegetables and eat more fruits and vegetables.
5. Children Make Excellent Cooks
Engaging the whole family in the preparation of the meal can relieve stress during the meal. And there is no reason you have to make dinner all alone! Have your child wash food while cutting, set the table while dinner is in the oven, or prepare a portion of the meal that can be largely automated using a rice cooker or microwave.
Children who participate in meal preparation have more positive attitudes towards food and are more likely to later eat the food they help prepare.
Make your children head chefs! You’ll help increase their ownership and self-confidence by doing so and teaching them good habits for life.