How to handle your little one’s fussy eating phase
15th July 2021
How do you handle fussy eating in your baby or toddler? How do you ensure your child is getting all the nutrition they need if they are going through a fussy phase?
Kiddylicious sat down with our panel of early years experts to get the lowdown on fussy eating:
Fussy eating is a fact of life
Sophie: Would you say, Laura, that it’s normal for most children to go through a fussy phase?
Laura: I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a fussy eating stage! I think a lot of parents aren’t ready for it, though. I think it still surprises and shocks them and makes them think that their child is unique, because they’re going through a fussy eating stage, when actually it’s really common. I think it’s something to emphasise, that fussy eating is standard and a normal part of development.
You might also notice your child has what seems like a regression. Unfortunately, it’s not that they hit the age of two and then they are over their fussy eating phase. They go backwards and forwards and have peaks and troughs. Through these stages, role modelling is so vital. Aim to all be sitting around the table, with everybody eating the same food and try not to offer alternatives if they refuse to eat dinner. A lot of parents feel pressure to nourish the child and dread them going to bed hungry, so they get something else for them. Once you start that, I think it snowballs and becomes a regular occurrence and the child picks up on that. They think, “what else has mum got for me? What else is she going to rustle up that’s going to be nice.” Some parents can fall into that trap of offering their child a different meal to what they would eat, but really, try to eat the same food.
Steph: Eating together can make such a difference. If you’re not eating properly yourself, your focus is on them and their plate and you can start to say: “why aren’t you touching that? Why don’t you try a little bit of this?” Whereas if you’re eating and having a conversation, the focus is not on them and what they’re doing. They might fuss around for a little while but eventually, you might be surprised.
If you’ve fallen into the trap of cooking separate meals or offering “bribes”, that’s okay, we don’t want people to feel guilty! It’s about being able to take a step back and take the pressure off yourself and try to get everyone back to one meal.
SP: If they can see you eating it, they’re all about mimicking and copying behaviour, especially babies. They want to eat the thing that you’re eating, that’s why they hold it out to you. If you take a bite, they are much more likely to eat it themselves.
Persevering with new flavours and foods
SP: They say that it takes 21 times of doing something before it becomes a habit and that is backed by a lot of research. So, it may take 21 times to try new foods. Remember though that you wouldn’t expect a child to suddenly start eating a new food. The first stage is that they will look at it , then touch it, then they’ll pick it up and lick it and spit it back out. It can be a really slow process to the point when they are eventually taking a bite and chewing and swallowing – and that’s fine.
LM: The window of six months to a year is really critical in pre-empting and minimising that fussy eating stage when it hits. If you’ve introduced lots of variety during that time, they’re already familiar with all these different foods that you’ve offered multiple times already and they’re more likely to eat them.
SP: I understand that parents will probably think that if there are different foods that they don’t like, I can’t possibly keep on offering them all the time. Give them as often as you can.
LM: This is where it’s important that the whole family is eating the same meal, so that if your little one doesn’t eat it, then you know that you can eat the leftovers!
SO: Thinking about the maximum number of times you offer a food before you move on, I would say, I don’t think that there necessarily is a maximum number. You never know, one day they might surprise you.
SP: It’s also useful to understand that children’s tongues and mouths are different in the way that they process tastes – and that’s why tastes can change. Flavours can seem a lot stronger to children, so they won’t eat it but if they keep getting offered it, they’ll eventually taste it and then all of a sudden, they like it. Olives are a classic one – you don’t like olives, and then all of a sudden you become an adult and you like olives.
LM: If there are foods that you think they dislike, it’s still important to bring them to the table. Just because they don’t like it, that doesn’t mean that parents and your other children around the table don’t like it.
SO: As always, language is so key here. What I’ll do is, I’ll have something myself and say: “well, mummy’s having this,” and then they’ll always want to see what you’re having. When you go out to a restaurant, order something you like and then say: “do you want to try some?” That’s another way of exposing them to new flavours them but not making them feel like you want them to eat all of it. One day, they might say yes.
LM: As long as your child is eating lots of different foods I don’t think it matters if there are certain things that they are hesitant or resistant to try. I just emphasise to parents to, remain calm, don’t force feeding, just removing that pressure.
SP: Show your child that you’re willing to try new things, especially if you are eating out or in a different country and it is a new food to all of you. It can be a nice experience to share; you’re all making that experiment together and discovering new things.
How to cope with likes and dislikes
SP: I sometimes find that trying something new can feel quite overwhelming. If you just pick one or two things you want to change and treat it as an experiment, it will be really interesting to see how they respond. If they respond positively, that’s great. If not, we’ll try something else. That helps me to feel that I’m not a failure if it didn’t work, I’m just testing something out and we’ll try something else next time. It’s also really important to honour your children’s likes and dislikes, as well as trying to introduce new foods and flavours. Give them those things they enjoy, have the familiarity of something that you know they’ll eat and that they also recognise. It’s really reassuring for them, rather than always presenting them with new things.
SO: Yes, so that when they look at their plate, there’s one food they like, one they love and then you can add a new food. Think about how you would react if you sat down to a plate of food that you had never seen before, you’re going to be a little bit tentative and cautious about it.
SP: As with everything, it’s a balance. I saw an idea on social media of a hack for getting your child to eat, which was to put cupcake sprinkles on their food. I wouldn’t rely on that kind of bribery. It’s saying to kids: “if you don’t want to eat something, then you can have sprinkles on it,” which makes it more appealing.
LM: For extreme cases of fussy eating, there’s a technique called ‘bridging’ where you would allow your child to use something like sauces on their broccoli, or whatever food they’re not sure about, because it’s a bridge to getting them to eat it. I thought you were going to say that the ‘magic dust’ was something like milled flax seeds! Sugary sprinkles are obviously not the right way to go. I think toppings can be a nice novelty for them with the right food, though.
SO: It can be useful to use play language to engage them, so you could say: “this is magic fairy dust but it’s called flaxseed,” or something like that. Kids might know the name for something but you can play let’s pretend and imagine it’s something else. Kids love imaginative play.
SP: My son loves to sprinkle grated cheese. If he can sprinkle cheese on something, he will eat it and he likes to grate the cheese himself. That’s good, because he can have a little bit of cheese on most things.
LM: I think I could give my son anything as long as it’s in a tortilla wrap. He loves a wrap, especially that building and construction element of putting it together. It’s worth saying, you can use vegetables in sauces to bulk them out, it makes it much more economical and nutritious, which is great. But try not to rely on “hiding vegetables”. Offer lots of side dishes of vegetables as well so that children can see and get to know new vegetables on their plate. They can learn where foods come from, what colour, texture and shape they are.
SP: Parents shouldn’t feel guilty about food. The reality is that we all get into situations where we feel desperate, we’ve had a really long day, you’re not feeling well, you want them to eat and they won’t, and then they’re throwing a tantrum. Everybody has times when they resort to offering things that they shouldn’t or using favourite foods as a bribe.
I think it’s important to take away that guilt from parents, especially as somebody who’s not a massive home cook. I obviously prepare meals for us and the children and interestingly, I was very experimental before we had children. Now, I feel as if I don’t have the time and maybe that’s just not me. If you’re not making a home cooked meal every night and it’s not something different and adventurous, you’re not doing anything wrong. It’s the way you choose to live. If you have a night where you just want to give them fish fingers because that’s what’s in the freezer and it’s easy, that is okay. It’s about trying to find that balance, isn’t it?
SO: I love a good freezer stash! I think there is less guilt about the kind of things that you can put in the freezer and grab when you need to and now, the food is so much better. I recently bought some fish fingers and they were really good quality. It’s not bad for them just because it came from the freezer. There are also little child-friendly ready meals. The quality is getting better all the time.
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