Do you have a fussy eater? Here’s what has worked for me
I have spent six years reading advice on how to feed a fussy eater. Let them help you cook, say the experts. My son, Oliver, loves to cook. Yes, let’s cut up carrots and place them in the slow cooker. But when it comes to eating the carrots: no thanks, mum.
We even bought seeds and grew our own vegetables. While it was exciting watching our lettuces and broccoli come to life, Oliver agreed with the backyard wildlife: lettuces are for bower birds and ladybirds, not for small children.
This commonly sprouted advice might work for your child, and is worth trying. My five-year-old, Thomas, loves picking lettuce leaves before school for his sandwich. But these are the tactics that work for me with my harder-to-feed Oliver.
Pair a preferred food with a new food.
Work with the foods your child already enjoys. You might like to make a list and consider what other foods go well with your kid’s preferred foods. Oliver likes salmon, so I often prepare food with this as the base ingredient. Smoked salmon and avocado on toast, for example. He likes bananas, so I mash banana with ricotta or make banana and peanut butter rice crackers. I often add a pile of caramelized onion to our dinner plates, because Oliver loves it, and spooning it onto whatever else is on his plate improves the flavour of the other foods for him.
Use a favourite food as a reward.
I read a textbook once called ‘Eating Interventions For Children With Developmental Disorders’. It was academic and research-based. But I loved the name of their use-food-as-a-reward tactic: ‘The Grandma Strategy’. This is a basic and commonly-used approach you probably heard as a kid: you can’t have any pudding until you eat your greens.
This approach works well in our family. Often, with Oliver, I make the goals small. And, for hard-to-eat food, I integrate an ongoing ‘reward’ into the meal. One bean, one piece of salmon. Another bean, another piece of salmon. It’s laborious, but works when you have the energy to do it. Although I am also conscious of not overly dictating every meal and bite, as I don’t want to give my son an eating disorder either.
Give healthy foods when your fussy eater is hungry.
Fussy eaters are more likely to eat healthy food when they are hungry as opposed to after a snack. Sounds obvious, but I see so many parents give unhealthy snacks to their kids while they are preparing a healthy meal. It’s so much easier to get a child to eat when they’re hungry, so hold off on the hors d’oeuvres. There’s also research showing that the food you eat when you are the hungriest is the food your body learns to crave. This is also something to think about when it comes to breakfast. You might like to read our article: 5 healthy breakfast ideas.
Experiment with new foods. Your fussy eater may surprise you.
Never assume your kids won’t like a particular food. My son has surprised me by liking foods I assumed he wouldn’t enjoy. I will never forget the day my mum was cooking liver and Oliver grabbed a chunk and took a bite. I was awaiting a gag response. Instead, he took another bite. And another. My mother and I looked at each other, holding back our shock.
I have held onto this lesson and always present new foods with enthusiasm. I also praise both my kids for trying new foods. I have even overheard Tom say, “It’s good to try new things, Oliver.”
Talk about the benefits of healthy food.
Eating well is about having good health literacy. It’s up to us, as parents, to teach our kids about nutrition. This means using positive language when talking about healthy food. And it’s normal to like some foods more than others. There are lots of vegetables that I regularly eat that I don’t love: broccoli, capsicum, carrots. Who wouldn’t prefer hot chips over spinach, if we took health out of the equation? Have regular conversations with your family about why we eat healthy food and how it’s helping our bodies. ‘Look at all these beautiful vegetables. Did you know they are full of minerals and vitamins? They keep our bodies really healthy and make our brains work well. These carrots are going to make your eyes strong.’ Sometimes we also talk about where our food comes from, and how a farmer grew this food for us and a truck driver delivered it to the shop and then mum or dad bought and prepared it for you. Hashtag gratitude.
Find foods that are similar to ones your fussy eater likes.
Think about the flavours and textures your child prefers. My kids like raw salmon, so I started buying raw tuna. And, yes, they like that too. They like sushi rolls, and Oliver will often eat a chicken sushi roll despite his reluctance to eat chicken by itself. Food is also about texture, and your child may have preferences for different foods based on the sensory experience. Autism educator, Sue Larkey, recommends even letting your child feel the food as a segue into actually eating it. You can listen to Sue Larkey interview a dietician about picky eating which is aimed at parents of kids who are autistic or have sensory issues: Dietician provides strategies to reduce picky eating for kids with autism.
Sneak extra nutrition into meals and drinks
I’m a big fan of smoothies. I’ve been gradually adding different ingredients to my kids’ smoothies over the years. Now they feel like a whole meal in a glass. Start slowly and with flavours your child likes. Add one new ingredient at a time in small doses to see how your child responds. My go-to ingredients are: fruit, nuts, seeds, oats, yoghurt, honey.
If you’re currently on chocolate milkshakes, you may need to start with a chunk of banana and work from there. Over time, you may be able to erase the chocolate altogether.
Think about foods your child will eat and whether you can sneak something new into the mix. Lasagna, pizza, sausage rolls, meatballs, and rissoles are all good meals to hide vegetables.
Consider seeing an integrative doctor or dietician.
There’s a difference between a fussy eater and a problem eater. See a professional if you’re concerned your child isn’t getting the nutrition they need. A GP can run a blood test and check for imbalances in your child’s biochemistry. It’s common for children with developmental disabilities, like autism and adhd, to be fussy eaters and to have imbalances in their biochemistry. My son takes a range of supplements, as advised by his doctor. These have helped build his immune system, manage fatigue, keep his gut strong, and have also improved his eating habits. As his zinc levels have increased, for example, he finds the taste of meat more tolerable. However, it’s important to get professional advice from a medical professional rather than guessing what supplements your child might need.
Kate is a freelance writer and runs a health communications agency. She is the founder and editor of The Healthy Life. She lives in the Blue Mountains with her husband and two small kids.