When it comes to meal times, it helps to remember who is responsible for what.
Parents are responsible for ensuring their child has healthy, safe and appealing foods to eat.
Children are responsible for choosing how much and whether they eat.
It’s important to keep this in mind when you have a fussy eater who often refuses particular foods or asks for foods that 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 can allow the child to feel a sense of 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.
Staying calm helps children understand that meal times are a normal part of the day. Some fussiness is normal – almost half of all children have a fussy period in their early years. Try to stay positive about your child’s efforts to explore new foods. Touching, smelling, nibbling, and chewing but not swallowing are all steps towards accepting and eating different foods.
Here are some tips that may help develop good eating habits and prevent a battle at meal times:
- Children have small stomachs, so provide five to six small nutritious meals each day.
- Keep to regular meal times so your child knows when the next meal is coming.
- Involve your child in planning the week’s meals and shopping.
- Have your child help prepare the meals.
- Understand that children may not always finish their meals, which is OK.
- Continue to offer previously refused foods.
- Try to make the meal time a pleasant experience.
Are they too tired at dinner time?
School-aged children can be tired and fussy by dinner time, which reduces the amount they eat or their willingness to try new foods. Try swapping their evening meal with their after-school snack when they’re hungry but not as tired as they might be at dinner time.
- Praise children when they eat well.
- Avoid distractions (such as TVs or iPads) to help your child focus on their meal.
- Talk to your child about food – the colours, the flavours, the smells.
- Set a time limit if your child eats slowly (20 to 30 minutes is enough). If your child hasn’t finished or has left food after this time calmly remove their food.
- Set a good example by eating your meal with your child at the table.
Children often do better at meal times when they sit at the table in a supportive chair, ideally with a foot rest. This is because the chair and table support their posture, allowing them to stay at the table longer and better use their utensils.
Why is my child refusing food?
There is often a reason why children refuse a meal. These can 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 bursts or as activity levels increase. This can result in a large appetite for a while, followed by small or fussy eating soon after. Think about why your child may be refusing a meal before you respond to their food refusal behaviours.
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 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).
- Mixing meats in with sauce or gravy 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 or add more milk to cereal.
- Make sure it is easy to access.
- Serve it cold or add interesting ice cube shapes.
- Don’t have other drinks available.
- Put the water in an interesting cup.
- Add a slice of fruit to it (e.g. orange, strawberry).
- Be a role model by drinking water yourself.
Start small and try different approaches
Provide new and familiar foods together, and start small – a few peas, slivers of carrot or apple, a crumble of cheese. Continue offering new foods, as repeated exposure can make foods feel more familiar and ‘safe’. Remember that it can take many exposures to a food before your child will try and accept it.
Use positive, encouraging language. Avoid pressuring your child to try something as it could create negative associations with the food.
If the thought of introducing new foods at lunch or dinner is overwhelming, try it at snack time instead. Try sending new foods to day care or school and see if they eat it there.
On the school holidays or weekends, invite a playmate who is an adventurous eater over for lunch. Seeing their mate keenly trying new foods or eating fruits and vegetables might be all the motivation a child needs!
You could also try planting a small garden with your child. Many children will be keen to try a vegetable they’ve planted and picked themselves.
When should you seek advice from a health professional?
- If you feel your child’s growth is slowing (not gaining enough weight or is not growing taller)
- If your child is ‘stuck’ on particular textures (i.e puree texture)
- Your child has less than 20 food items they accept in their diet
- Your child avoids an entire food group for many months
Did you know?
Most children need to try a new food 15-20 times before they know if they like it.
Keep on trying it!