Still Fussy? What To Do When You Have Tried Everything
A few days ago I saw my friend post yet another frustrated rant about her children and dinnertime on Facebook. Desperate for a new piece of wisdom, and probably clinging to the hope that she wasn’t alone, my friend reached out for some support. Of course she wasn’t alone, and it resulted in an outpouring of stories from parents in similar situations. Sound familiar? You are definitely not alone. At around 5pm in homes across the country, parents are dreading dinnertime and preparing for an evening of tearing their hair out and food wastage.
This post is really just for my friends, and their friends, and well, anyone who is just having a gut-full come dinnertime. Take a deep breath and re-evaluate. It’s time to stop beating yourself up, you’re doing a great job – because you are still hanging in there, still trying.
I think some of the best advice is to keep mealtimes positive. Regain their trust in mealtimes and start including your children in the preparation and cooking of food. It’s not a quick fix or an easy one but it is achievable and so worth it. Here are some tips.
- Take a deep breath and ask your children what their favourite meals are and then write them down together. Even if they say something wildly inappropriate, just write it down. This first step is about changing perceptions, feeling like they are being heard, and making mealtimes positive again. Hopefully you will get a few realistic responses too.
- Start serving their favourite dinners for a few nights in a row. This will immediately increase your child’s enjoyment at mealtimes and reduce any stress and anxiety that might be contributing to fussy eating behaviours. Generate some buzz around dinnertime, and ask them to help prepare when it is their favourite meal on the menu. Don’t worry if it’s pizza, chicken nuggets, whatever. Serve those, and after a few days serve them alongside something else – something fresh, textured and varied. Remember they don’t have to eat the other options, but it’s there if they are inspired to try something new. And if you save fruit or dessert for after a meal, change things up and try offering it with their meal. It’s a great trick if your kids refuse their dinner, instead holding out for what comes after.
- Once mealtimes are back on track you can start including new foods and new meals. Look through cookbooks together and talk about the types of food they would like to try. Remember that children are more likely to eat something they have chosen, prepared or helped to cook. Rather than going from pizza to cauliflower try a bridging meal to soften the blow – so if they love frozen pizza try buying or making a pizza base and topping it together with fresh ingredients, including finely chopped steamed cauliflower. You could also try making a cauliflower pizza base. Or, if they like chicken nuggets try making some yourself, giving you the control as to what goes in them. They don’t like avocado? Our banana avocado bread usually goes down a treat.
- Break the negative dinnertime cycle by creating some positive food moments. Sit down and enjoy food with your children and be sure to praise any positive interactions with food, even if they aren’t eating anything. Simply touching a food they might have previously screamed at the sight of is worth celebrating! Eating outside, having a BBQ or enjoying afternoon tea at the park can also a good time to include new and varied foods to try. This all works best by having no-technology-while-eating rules and by incorporating some family mealtimes to model behaviour. It’s also a good idea to try and hold back any negative comments, bribery or punishment at the table. This may lead to increased anxiety, reduced appetite and negative associations with eating.
- This is also a great time to limit and be mindful of snacks. Afternoon tea, biscuits before dinner, milk and fruit juice could well be the culprit for fussy eating behaviour and food refusal. If children aren’t hungry enough they wont eat – simple as that. And, even worse, if they are forced to eat when they aren’t hungry it destroys their innate ability to self regulate – often resulting in adults who overeat.
- Create routine so your children know what to expect. Having a mealtime schedule and mealtime routine with a beginning, middle and an end can remove a lot of anxiety you and your children feel around eating. Even limiting the time your child sits at the table to 20 minutes can help a lot (if your mealtimes take longer than this and are causing you stress). Just as sleep cues or a pre-bedtime routine can help children with happy bedtimes and quality sleep, cues and pre-mealtime routines can help make mealtimes relaxing and improve your child’s eating behaviours and habits.
While you are working on dinnertime try and include more variety in the other meals too. Looking at what your children have eaten over the whole day can sometimes make you feel better about their choices at dinner. Homemade Breakfast cereals and finger foods are usually well accepted when children are most hungry after a good nights sleep. Try and keep snacking to a minimum and choose the right kind of snacks for lasting energy.