A while back I posted ‘Please help Vegie Smugglers, my child only eats…’ which included the line “not trying is NEVER an option – our deal is TWO big bites”. Ever since I’ve had a string of emails…’but how do you get your kids to TRY new things?’
Like all parenting advice, different tactics work for different kids and this post just covers how I approach it. Who knows, maybe there will be an idea or two that you can apply at your place.
Firstly, work out if you child’s fussing at mealtimes is behavioural or medical. It’s normal for kids (starting about 18 months) to exercise a bit of self-determination and provide you with some pretty frustrating feeding moments. BUT, other kids may have genuine medical problems that you will need to seek professional help to overcome.
Most kids on the autism spectrum are fussy feeders. They need special consideration. If your diagnosis is recent or you’ve just been so overwhelmed dealing with everything else and have only just started to tackle food issues, then visit here for some excellent information that may help you.
If you child gags or vomits at mealtimes, they might have motor skills delays or a hypersensitive gag reflex. There’s information about that here.
Other kids may have digestion problems that cause discomfort and indigestion – pretty hard for a 2 year old to convey. Again, you’ll need medical advice to help you with these issues.
But if none of these apply to you and your child is still being a dinnertime MONSTER, you might want to follow some of these strategies…
Smile. Don’t get worked up. Keep everything positive. Freaking out about this entire subject only increases mealtime tension and won’t get you anywhere. Try to focus on feeding the entire family well, rather than fixating on what one child is/isn’t eating. Don’t let a frustrating toddler hold you to ransom. But at the same time…
2. Make a list of the foods your child does eat
You may be pleasantly surprised to realise that they do actually eat more than you thought. If the number of items is less than 20 then definitely have a chat to your GP about it next time you’re there.
3. Change your (& their) expectations & behaviour
There’s a good PDF download here about setting and meeting expectations and changing behaviour. Just change ‘employee’ to ‘child’ as you read and you’ll have a few interesting things to think about. Basically, you’ve got to put a behavior system in place around mealtimes. Let your child know what is expected of them. Reward them (with positive reinforcement) when they meet these expectations.
In my house, it is expected that my kids will come to dinner happily, with an open mind. They will be appreciative of the person who’s cooked their dinner and thank them by taking two big bites.
Why two? The first bite of something new is often unwelcome. Keep in mind that humans are programmed to be suspicious of new foods. It’s how we’ve survived for centuries without being poisoned to extinction. So the first bite is the ‘shock’ bite and it’s the second bite that allows them to relax and actually taste.
Over time my kids have come to trust that I’ve tried to cook something that they are quite likely to enjoy. Often, this basic deal is all it will take. A couple of bites into a tasty dinner and they might be happy to continue on. Great!
BUT. Sometimes they won’t like dinner. If they’ve genuinely tried it and don’t like it then they can have something else and I won’t fuss. I don’t cook twice but just let them have buttered bread, cheese, yoghurt, banana – something simple but filling.
If I’m trialing a new dish that I know is a fair way out of their comfort zones, then I make sure I’ve got fresh bread on hand as a backup. I find my success rate is about 50/50. But I would urge you to try the occasional ‘leap’ – I’ve been pleasantly shocked to see my kids happily tucking into (and enjoying) some pretty challenging dinners.
In the early days of this system, my kids would sometimes refuse to eat their two bites. Which meant they ate nothing. That’s their choice. I would let them go hungry rather than resort to unhealthy food. Hold firm – they won’t starve themselves to death. Even the fussiest first world children are extremely well nourished. You may just find that they are much more compliant tomorrow once genuine hunger has set in.
At this point it may be worth noting that I don’t reward my kids for eating. Research has shown that rewarding kids for eating food is ineffective in the long term. And never EVER force them to eat or force them to overeat. Children often need far less food than we think.
Now, getting back to that list of ingredients that they do eat….
4. Give yourself the best chance of success
Make dinners based around ingredients they do like. They like meat? Give them a hamburger with smuggled chickpeas, smothered with beetroot dip. They like cheese? Try cheesy pots with grated or blitzed vegies. Make dinners that they ought to enjoy. Build up the trust that you’re going to present them with yummy stuff. Find a few standard meals and then keep pushing them gradually further and further out of their comfort zones. It’s really important to keep up variety so that new becomes normal and they stop fussing every time they don’t recognize something. And keep in mind that you need your kids to be hungry at dinner. Try cutting out snacks in the afternoon and make dinnertime earlier.
5. Teach them why they eat
I love the concept of ‘go’ foods and ‘slow’ foods rather than ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods. My kids understand that certain foods provide the nourishment we need to live happy, energetic lives. They understand that dinner is a great opportunity to enjoy a stack of ‘go’ foods to fuel them up for tomorrow.
The other side of this is that I also don’t make ‘slow’ foods taboo. Enjoy treats without guilt. All food is ok, just educate kids about how often they should eat different things. You’d be surprised by some of the crap we eat in our house. It’s not a big deal. We enjoy pizza, especially since we don’t have it very often. We do sometimes note though, how sluggish we feel after this ‘slow’ food.
Share with them a love of good food and of the social side of sharing a meal with people you love.
6. Life & food education
Once you’re past the panic stage and your child is accepting more foods, keep the variety coming and start into a new phase of food education, including shopping together (teach them how to choose good produce and get them to do it) cooking together (start with fun recipes like these pancakes), eating together (even if it’s just Sunday brunch and one or two nights a week) and gardening (show them where food comes from). Give them a couple of choices for dinner and get them to practice decision-making.
Model good behavior and healthy choices. Exercise together. Don’t diet or fuss about your weight in front of your child. Keep mealtimes happy (it’s a great chance for communication).
And remember, be consistent. Like all aspects of parenting, the second you waiver, your child will pounce. They’re canny like that.
Phew! What a long post! Thanks for sticking with me – I hope there are some ideas here to help you.
Some of my standard dinners for really fussy toddlers….