Children are notorious for being fussy eaters, especially when it comes to healthy eating. With the abundance of fast food specifically marketed towards children, a parent’s job isn’t made any easier.
Improving a child’s relationship with food from an early age will help ensure that they adopt healthy habits as an adult. The following article will list some ways to help improve a child’s relationship with food.
Offer them a variety of food choices
Whilst this can be difficult for larger meals, it is important to let children have more choice when it comes to what they consume. Children do not like to be forced to do things, and they can form negative connotations around food they are compelled to eat.
Giving children a choice between different healthy foods, rather than railroading them with a specific food, will help combat this issue. Offering a variety will also keep things interesting for them and teach them that enjoying new and different food is part of life.
Involve them in cooking and meal preparation
One of the best ways to improve a child’s relationship with food is to involve them in cooking and meal preparation. Knowing what goes into preparing the meals they enjoy, you can give them a great appreciation of food by exposing them to the sights, sounds, and smells of the cooking process.
A lot of the time young children are fussy about eating foods that seem strange to them, and this is a natural survival instinct. By making them familiar with food in different stages of preparation, they will become more open-minded about what they eat as they grow up.
Many children develop unhealthy habits as adults because they have not grown up learning how to cook. Adults who don’t grow up with kitchen skills tend to find cooking a chore and resort to unhealthy options, like takeaway or microwaveable meals.
It’s a good idea to get your kids involved in the cooking process as early as it is safe for them to do so. There are a variety of ways that children can participate in cooking without needing to handle knives or mess with stovetops; just make sure you are supervising them.When a child is involved in preparing the meal they later get to eat, they will naturally have a greater understanding and appreciation of cooking. Teaching them the benefits of cooking their own meals while they are young is something that they will thank you for as they get older.
Slowly introduce new foods to them
Children can react negatively to new food if it is suddenly introduced to them as a departure from the norm. This experience can make them suspicious of new foods and give them a narrow outlook around what they eat.
It’s smarter to slowly introduce new foods to them by incorporating them into dishes they already like. For example, if your child loves macaroni and cheese, then you can introduce finely diced vegetables to enhance the nutrition of the meal and get them to experience new tastes.
This is particularly effective if you are trying to improve the nutrition of older children who are already set in their ways. A few small healthy changes here and there can snowball over time and make them more open to trying new things in the future.
Try to learn about new balanced dishes that you can cook and introduce to your children in a gradual manner. The more variety you present to your child, the quicker they are going to open up to healthier food experiences.
Replace unhealthy snacks with healthy ones
Snacking is the bane of both child and adult diets, and the wide variety of unhealthy snacking options out there can make it very difficult to get away from. Many snacks are packaged with flashy colours and cartoon characters that make them more appealing to children. These snacks are then placed strategically at checkouts, so children see and demand that you buy them when you go shopping.
If you have a child that likes to snack, see what you can do about replacing their snack of choice with something healthier. There are plenty of options for healthier snacks out there that are packaged with children in mind and make ideal additions to their school lunchbox.
Try giving plenty of variety to keep things interesting for them. Keep in mind that children will demand fewer snacks if they have healthier main meals that give them the energy they need throughout the day.
There are so many challenges that come with raising children. In most families, a child’s relationship with food typically takes a backseat to more immediate concerns. However, it’s essential that you nurture a good relationship with food so that your child grows into an adult with a healthy body and mind.
Raising Children Network, Healthy Eating Habits for Kids. Access on 20 October 2020, Updated on 13-12-2018
Kids Health, Healthy eating. Access on 17 October 2020, Updated on June 2018
Interview with Dr Kimberley O’Brien. Principal Child Psychologist, Quirky Kid Clinic on 16 October 2020
For some families, dinner time can be the most challenging time of the day, kids and adults are exhausted and just need some space to relax. Dinnertime can quickly spiral out of control, deteriorating towards a full-on disaster zone. Navigating the ‘terrible twos’ at dinnertime can be emotionally challenging and downright exhausting.
Let’s set the scene – you and your little one have had a fabulous day at the park, you’re on top of the household chores, and you’ve just booked the next visit to the grandparents. You head home to start the evening routine, and dinner is next on the agenda.
Tonight’s menu is deliciously grilled chicken pieces, steamed broccoli, carrot sticks, and sweet potato mash. You serve your little one your ‘MasterChef’ quality meal and…cue whining, food smearing, flying carrot sticks, and ultimately tears, most likely from both of you. If you’re lucky, your little one will spend the meal smearing mash over their face, body and high chair while dropping carrot sticks on the cat. However, if your little one enjoys a tantrum or two, the mere sight of a vegetable will bring on an emotional outburst similar to a tropical thunderstorm.
The following recommendations have been revised from a previous Quirky Kid Fussy Eaters article and updated to support you through this tricky age and stage.
Managing Your Emotions
Sometimes it can be really hard to manage your own emotional responses when your child is demonstrating an escalation in their behaviour. Consider these tips for Parental Self-Regulation:
- As hard as it sounds, try to remain calm – when you feel your emotional responses begin (anger, frustration, resentment), remind yourself to breathe, long, slow, deep breaths.
- Remind yourself ‘It’s only a phase, this is normal behaviour, this is my little one testing the boundaries, the behaviour is their means of communication at this age’.
- As a parent, modelling calm behaviour, as well as being willing to accept your child’s emotional responses, will in the long run support your child’s emotional regulation (Ramsden & Hubbard, 2002).
Understanding and Responding to Behaviour
When your child’s behaviour is beginning to escalate, as long as they are not in any immediate danger, it is important to evaluate their behaviour before you respond:
- Ask yourself ‘What is my child’s behaviour trying to tell me?”
- are they trying to avoid a food due to its taste?
- are they trying to avoid a food due to its smell, texture and/or visual aversion?
- are they already full because of late snacks at daycare?
- are they seeking my attention because I am busy cooking?
- can they see their favourite toy, which is just out of reach?
- When you take a moment to try and understand what your child is trying to ‘say’ with their behaviour, then – and only when your child is calm – can you model an appropriate replacement behaviour, e.g. ‘Mummy, more chips please’ or ‘Finished, Mum’.
Positive Behaviour Strategies
Ongoing negative behaviour at dinnertime can be really challenging for everyone, so alongside the tips and strategies above, the following positive behaviour management strategies may be beneficial to support calmer, happier, more productive dinner times:
- Tantrums may be unpleasant and noisy but they are also a great opportunity for parents to demonstrate to their child how to regulate their emotions. Parents can show their child that they are providing loving support within appropriate boundaries. Providing ‘loving, sensitive guiding, and firm’ practices, as opposed to overly firm or overly flexible practices, supports your child’s emotional development (Coyne & Murrell, 2009).
- Consistency is the key – always follow through with the contingency you have set up beforehand. You set your child up for success when you explain your expectations clearly before the meal, such as ‘‘Let’s explore lettuce and cauliflower tonight”. Then provide a contingency and/or choices based on whether your expectations have been met: “After we explore the new foods, you can have your sweet potato mash” (the most preferred item on offer), or “Do you want yoghurt or strawberries after we explore the new foods?” Present the new items alongside foods your child enjoys, withholding the most highly preferred food as reinforcement for meeting your expectations. Reinforcing appropriate behaviour will increase the likelihood that this behaviour will be demonstrated again in the future (Whittingham, 2015).
- Ensure the focus of the meal is about curiosity to try new foods, with achievement measured in small steps, rather than expecting your child to finish a portion of less preferred foods in one sitting. Shaping your child’s food preferences means that you are providing reinforcement based on successful target behaviour and repeated exposure to new and interesting foods (Whittingham, 2015).
- Trying new foods may include talking about the colour, the shape, the texture, what it does to fuel your body, how it feels, how it smells and lastly how it tastes. Encourage a pathway of touch, smell, lick, bite and allow the child to work their way along the pathway at their own pace. Repeated exposure to non-preferred foods in a non-punitive way will support increased likelihood of the child’s willingness to try the foods in the future (Wardle, et al., 2003).
- Remember, your child’s energy intake and hunger may not be aligned with ‘mealtimes’ just yet and so it is important to meet their needs with healthy snacks and food choices across the day (Allen & Myers, 2006).
Prevention and Planning Strategies
It is important to set your child up early with healthy eating behaviours, to provide ongoing information about food and health, and to provide opportunities to explore new foods and textures. Outside of mealtimes, the following tips can be helpful in supporting a child’s positive eating behaviour:
- Depending on your child’s age, incorporate foods into other learning concepts, such as using foods to teach shapes, colours and textures.
- You can incorporate different vegetables and foods in art and craft play, and use this as a time to talk about the foods’ nutritional value.
- Make sure you keep healthy foods accessible to your child – you can keep pre-cut vegetables in the fridge or on the table. When children are hungry, they may be inclined to eat the foods that they wouldn’t normally choose.
- Pair non-preferred foods with highly preferred foods, such as salad dressing or sauce for dipping, this will help your child tolerate new tastes and textures and the sauce can be faded out slowly.
- Encourage your child to participate in the grocery shopping. Let them choose new fruits and vegetables based on fun colours and textures and involve them in meal preparations. Giving your child some choice over their food (within limits) will support them to become more willing to eat the meals you have prepared.
While the information above is intended to support difficult eating behaviours in children at the toddler stage, it is important to note that some children experience more complex negative eating behaviours. In cases of severe food avoidance or associated conditions, families may benefit from individualised consultations. For a child who demonstrates severe food refusal and/or avoidance of particular tastes and textures, a consultation with both a Psychologist and a Nutritionist may be a consideration. Please contact us to schedule an appointment.
- Allen, R.E., & Myers, A.L. (2006). Nutrition in toddlers. Am Fam Physician, 74.9, 1527-1532.
- Coyne, L., & Murrell, A. (2009). The Joy of Parenting: An acceptance and commitment therapy guide to effective parenting in the early years. New Harbinger Publications, Oakland, CA
- Ramsden, S. R., & Hubbard, J. A. (2002). Family expressiveness and parental emotion coaching: Their role in children’s emotion regulation and aggression. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 30(6), 657-667.
- Wardle, J., Herrara M.L., Cooke, L. & Gibson, E.L. (2003). Modifying children’s food preferences: The effects of exposure and reward on acceptance of an unfamiliar vegetable. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 57, 341–348.
- Whittingham, K. (2015). Connect and shape: A parenting meta-strategy. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 4(2), 103-106.