If your child is a fussy eater, and mealtimes in your home feel more like a battleground than quality family time, you may take heart in knowing you aren’t alone. In fact, almost 50% of parents identify their preschooler as a fussy eater. Whilst it can be frustrating, exhausting and even overwhelming for parents who find themselves constantly worrying about whether their child is getting enough to fulfil their nutritional needs, what many of us don’t realise is that it is entirely normal. Particularly between the ages of 2 and 6 years, fussy eating or food neophobia (fear of new food) are age-appropriate behaviours. In fact, experts suggest that it may even be a survival mechanism – for toddler-sized cavemen who foraged for food, it would have been crucial to be cautious about trying new and potentially poisonous things!
Nevertheless, it is important to encourage your child to overcome their reluctance to try new food. We’ve found 9 science-backed strategies that will help you to encourage your fussy eater to try new foods.
1. Eat a Varied Diet When Pregnant and Breast-feeding
Okay, so it may be too late for this one now, but we’ve included it because it’s handy to know for any future offspring you may have planned. Research suggests babies can taste the foods that their mother eats while they are in the womb. Food flavours can also be passed to infants via breast milk, so our children’s taste preferences may begin to form much earlier than many of us realise! Eating a varied diet during pregnancy and breast-feeding may make your child more likely to enjoy the flavours they’ve previously experienced in the amniotic sac or breast milk!
2. Don’t Pressure Them to Eat
The golden rule of getting kids to try new foods is not to pressure them, as this well-intentioned approach is likely to backfire, making your child even more resistant. Besides which, you don’t want to feel as though you are locking horns with your child at every mealtime. For children who are resistant or fearful of trying something new, it’s far more productive to make mealtimes a calm, positive experience.
As one study showed, children consumed significantly more when they were not pressured to eat. The experiment consisted of two groups of children who were offered both squash soup and corn soup every day for 11 weeks. One of the groups was pressured to eat the corn soup, and the other group was pressured to eat the squash soup. Somewhat predictably, the children ate more of whichever soup they were not pressured to eat!
3. Don’t Expect Them to Eat Everything on Their Plate
Whilst food wastage can be frustrating, studies show that forcing children to eat until the plate is empty, rather than when they’ve eaten enough, can lead to them overriding their natural hunger and fullness cues in later life. This can lead to disordered eating as adults.
4. Don’t Try to Feed Them if They Aren’t Hungry
Feeding your child to a predetermined schedule rather than when they are hungry, won’t always work. Due to growth spurts and developmental stages, your child’s appetite may vary significantly from week to week.
5. Don’t Give Up on a Food Just Because Your Child Didn’t Like It the First Time
Nutrition Science Research suggests that can take between 10 and 20 exposures to a new food before children begin to accept or like it. As Dina Rose, PhD, sociologist and author of ‘It’s Not About the Broccoli’ explains, an ‘exposure’ to a food doesn’t necessarily mean they have to taste it. An exposure might be smelling it, touching it, looking at it, listening to someone talking about it, watching others eating it, or helping to buy it at the supermarket. The key is for the child to become familiar with it, so they become more confident to try it.
6. Model Good Eating Habits
Eating with your family isn’t just a good time to catch upon the events of the day, it’s also a great opportunity for your child to see you modelling good eating habits. In one experimental study, parents who increased their intake of fruits and vegetables were more likely to succeed at getting their child to eat more of the good stuff too!
7. Get Your Child Involved in Food Prep
Research shows that kids who are involved in preparing meals in some form or other, have more positive attitudes towards food. They are also more likely to eat or try foods that they feel some ownership over. Age-appropriate ways of involving your child in food preparation could include picking them out at the supermarket, washing them before you peel or chop them, watching them cook or setting a timer for when they are ready, and even setting the table for the family. If it’s appropriate and the food isn’t too hot, allowing children to self-serve is also a great way to hand some of the power on what they eat to them.
8. Don’t Offer Sweet Foods as a Reward for Eating Vegetables
There are few parents amongst us who can hand on heart say they’ve never uttered the bribe “you can have dessert if you take 2 more bites of broccoli.” When you are desperate to get some ‘good food’ into your child, offering a reward can seem like a reasonable trade-off. The issue with it though, is that it subconsciously sets the child up to consider the vegetable as a negative, a ‘chore’ to be completed, before they can enjoy the positive, ‘reward’ food. In the long run, this may teach your child that vegetables are something to be endured rather than enjoyed.
9. Try Giving Foods Fun Names
This tried and tested strategy is a great way to make vegetables fun. In one experimental study, researchers tested the effect of re-labelling familiar foods and found that elementary school students ate more carrots, broccoli, and green beans when the canteen menu labelled them as ‘X-Ray VisionCarrots,’ ‘Power Punch Broccoli,’ and ‘Silly Dilly Green Beans.’ So, get creative and think up some fun new names for the vegetables your child has been turning their nose up at!