When it comes to meal times, it pays to remember who is responsible for what. Parents are responsible for ensuring their child has healthy, safe and appealing foods to eat, while children are responsible for choosing how much they eat.
It’s important to keep this in mind when you have a fussy eater at the table who regularly says no to certain types of food or asks for things that they haven’t been offered.
Allowing your child to choose how much to eat (or not at all) will not solve the food refusal problem instantly, but it gives them some control at meal times. If your child chooses not to eat the family meal, make it clear to them that there will be nothing else offered until the next meal time. It sounds tough but they will not starve and they will quickly learn to eat with everyone else.
Here are some tips that may help develop good eating habits and prevent a battle at meal times:
- Keep to regular meal times so your child knows when the next meal is coming. (Children have small stomachs, so provide five to six small nutritious meals each day at regular times.)
- Involve your child in planning the week’s meals and shopping.
- Have your child help prepare the meals.
- Try to avoid offering the largest meal in the evening. This is a time when young children are too tired to try new foods or to eat much.
- Avoiding distractions (such as iPads) can help your child eat the food that is in front of them.
- Talk to your child about food (the colours, the flavours, the smells)
- Understand that children may not always finish their meals, which is OK.
- Try to make the mealtime a pleasant experience.
- Set a good example by eating your meal with your child at the table.
- Praise children when they eat well.
- Eat with your child.
- Set a time limit if your child eats slowly (20 to 30 minutes is enough).
Why is my child refusing food?
There is often a valid reason why children may refuse a meal. These may include:
- Eating frequent snacks throughout the day or filling up on drinks—in particular, sweet drinks or milk
- Being too tired or not hungry
- Having low activity levels that day
- Children’s intake will increase during growth or as activity levels increase. This can result in a large appetite for a while, followed by small and picky eating soon after.
Think about why your child may be refusing a meal before you act.
If your child is refusing specific foods, try these ideas:
- Are the flavours too strong? Try raw vegetables with healthy dips.
- Add them to other foods that they enjoy (e.g. pizza, spaghetti bolognaise).
- Let your child help to prepare the vegetables.
- A taste does not always lead to a swallow. The ‘one bite policy’ is a good technique. Your child will eventually realise that the vegetable is actually edible.
- Prepare the same vegetable in different ways (e.g. your child may like raw carrot but not cooked, or corn on the cob but not individual kernels).
- Try softer cuts such as mince or thinly sliced meat in sandwiches.
- Mix meat into foods your child likes (e.g. pasta) or mix roast meats with gravy.
- Mixing meats in with sauces also makes them easier to chew and swallow. Other foods can provide similar nutrients, so include fresh and canned fish, eggs, peanut paste, nuts or combinations of legumes and grains (e.g. baked beans on toast, hummus with pita bread, or kidney bean tacos or burritos).
- Try using tenderising cooking methods (e.g. slow cooking, letting roasted foods rest).
- Try other dairy foods such as cheeses and yoghurt.
- Make smoothies with milk and fruit or yoghurt.
- Increase the amount of milk used in cooking (e.g. milk-based desserts like custard) or add more milk to cereal.
- Make sure it is easy to access.
- Serve it cold with interesting ice cube shapes added.
- Be a role model by drinking water yourself.
- Don’t have other drinks available.
- Put the water in an interesting cup.