My kids won’t eat greens!’ …’How can I get my toddler to try vegetables?’
Does this sound familiar? Do you have fussy kids, or are they simply unwilling to try new foods? The younger years are crucial for setting up good eating habits for children but it’s also the stage when they are most likely to become fussy may refuse to eat. In fact, research shows that nearly half of children go through a phase of fussy easting at some point during early childhood. (Cardona Cano S)
As a mum myself, I am passionate about feeding my family simple, healthy and nutritious meals but understand that sometimes mealtimes can morph into the Hunger Games when you are struggling with a fussy eater who refuses to eat an amazing meal you just prepared.
While it can be frustrating when a child flat out rejects the food we offer them, it’s actually the way that we deal with the situation that impacts on their eating habits. “Fussy eating” is usually related to a power play between a child and parents. It may be your child’s way of showing their independence and pushing the limits by trying to assert control over what they do and don’t eat.
While feeding fussy kids can be exhausting and frustrating, remember, you are not alone! So here are some of my top tips to help keep you sane and your kids healthy.
Continuously offer foods your children reject. Children need to be offered a new food as many as 10-15 times before they will eat it. A child cannot learn to accept a new food without frequent exposure. Persistence is the key! Studies have reported that kids increase their liking for and consumption of vegetables after they are asked to taste them every day for two weeks (Wardle et al 2003a; Wardle et al 2003b).
Be a Good Role Model
One of the simplest things you can do to encourage great eating habits is to sit down together for family meals. Children learn from those around them. If you eat healthy foods regularly with and in front of your kids then they will be more likely to eat the same foods or at least be interested in trying them. Dinner should be the same for everyone involved. Monkey see, monkey do! It’s about leading by example. Try putting a new food next to food that your toddler already likes. They don’t have to like it but they do have to try – smell, look, touch, aim to use all their senses, not just taste.
In one experimental study, parents who increased their intake of fruits and vegetables were more likely to succeed at increasing their children’s intake (Haire-Joshu et al 2008). Another study showed that kids were more likely to accept a new food if they saw an adult eating it (Addessi et al 2005).
Tell your child the positive benefits of a food. How it will make them feel good, give them the energy to play and help them grow big and strong. Make it fun and interesting. Kids love a good story. Teach your child about where their food comes from and rather than show displeasure at the negatives, praise your child for the positives.
Make mealtimes fun
A change of scenery can sometimes do wonders. So moving away from the dinner table is an excellent way to add some excitement and adventure into mealtime. Try a picnic on the lounge room floor or a tent party. Keep it fun and create themed nights or create a ‘make your own’ salad taco or wrap night – let the kids build their own out of the fresh vegetables that you make available.
Include them with cooking and growing foods
Get the kids outside and teach them to plant and grow their own fruit and vegetables that they can pick and eat themselves. Being involved will make them feel more in control. Strawberries and cucumbers are easy ones to start with. Studies suggest that kids eat more fruits and vegetables when the produce is home-grown (Nanney et al 2007).
Also get kids involved in the kitchen to prepare meals. Allow them to watch and help with cooking such as mixing salads or pouring ingredients. Children who are more actively involved in food choices are more likely to be interested in the food they eat. And getting your fussy eater to participate “behind the scenes” might help them become more familiar—and less wary—of the food you make.
Remember that kids are little and so are they tummies so we need to introduce new foods gradually. Serve food in small portions.They can always ask for more. Large portions can be overwhelming. Even if the portion doesn’t seem that big to you, it might to your toddler. It’s about trying to get them to have an open mind and you will have more luck with this if the portions are smaller to start with. For example, try a bowl of loved spaghetti Bolognese with one floret of broccoli. Each time you can then slowly increase portion size.
Routine & Structure
Providing structure for meals and snacks has a number of advantages. It helps them to manage their hunger so they show up to the next meal hungry but not famished. It also keeps them from snacking on food between meals, which can result in no appetite at mealtimes.
Fussy eaters are often slow eaters. Trying to hurry children to eat can cause them to become stressed, and put them off their food. Be patient! Eating should be a chilled out and happy affair for all the family.
Ways to help increase fruit and vegetable intake:
- Try smoothies with any mix of fruit and vegetables (add oats, yoghurt, chia seeds for extra substance)
- Make homemade fruit ice blocks (using coconut milk and fresh fruit)
- Hide the goods when needed – Bake vegetable muffins, banana cupcakes and zucchini pikelets
- Offer sweet potato fries with a meal
- Use cauliflower rice instead of normal rice
- Present the food in a different way to make it visually appealing for kids – make fun shapes, faces or use fun plates
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- Addessi E, Galloway AT, Visalberghi E, and Birch LL. 2005. Specific social influences on the acceptance of novel foods in 2-5-year-old children. Appetite. 45(3):264-71.
- Cardona Cano S, et al. “Trajectories Of Picky Eating During Childhood: A General Population Study. – Pubmed – NCBI”. Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. N.p., 2017. Web. 21 Feb. 2017. – (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25644130
- Haire-Joshu D, Elliott MB, Caito NM, Hessler K, Nanney MS, Hale N, Boehmer TK, Kreuter M, and Brownson RC. 2008. High 5 for Kids: the impact of a home visiting program on fruit and vegetable intake of parents and their preschool children. Prev Med. 47(1):77-8.
- Mascola, Anthony J., Susan W. Bryson, and W. Stewart Agras. “Picky Eating During Childhood: A Longitudinal Study To Age 11Years”. Pubmed – NCBI”. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2943861/
- Nanney MS, Johnson S, Elliott M, and Haire-Joshu D. 2007. Frequency of eating homegrown produce is associated with higher intake among parents and their preschool-aged children in rural Missouri. J Am Diet Assoc. 107(4):577-84.
- Wardle J, Herrera ML, Cooke L, Gibson EL. 2003b.Modifying children’s food preferences: the effects of exposure and reward on acceptance of an unfamiliar vegetable. Eur J Clin Nutr. 57(2):341-8.