children nutrition fussy eating nutrition Jul 19, 2023

Guess what, even Nutritionists can have fussy eaters! If you’ve followed me on Instagram you would have seen that my 3 year old began a fussy eating period at around 13 months and we’re still navigating it today. I prefer the term ‘non adventurous’ eater but to give you a good picture of the level of fussiness, he got to a stage where he had cut out 3 full food groups (meat, vegetables and fruit) and had less then 10 accepted foods. I am happy to report however that we have come a long way and although family/mixed meals are our goal and we are not quite there yet, he is eating a much greater variety and vegetables, fruit and even meat more recently are now being enjoyed (hit and miss obviously like all kids but he is willing to try them most of the time).

The first thing I want to say if you are a parent of a non adventurous eater is….you are doing amazing! The fact that you are reading this means you are trying to do best for them and unless you have gone through a child with fussy eating I don’t think you can truly understand how soul crushing and exhausting it can be - despite the fact that yes, it is very normal for kids to go through fussy periods with eating. I also want to tell you not to lose hope. They say fussy periods can last 3-4 years which I don’t highlight to make you disheartened, but to show how important it is to have a strategy that focuses on the long game. No doubt your goal is the same as ours, for them to enjoy exactly what you are cooking for the rest of the family, and so reminding yourself of that goal instead of driving yourself mad thinking my child MUST eat at every single meal has been a hard but essential lesson on our journey.

I also want to say that working with a paediatric dietitan, like we did initially, is a fantastic option. This can rule out any medical, physiological or other reasons for the fussiness and can ensure it is not effecting their growth and development. The reason I loved working with a professional (yes I’m a Nutritionist but I do not specialise in paediatrics), was so my husband and I could be on the same page with our approach. We listened to the advice from the professionals and then decided how we would build our strategy based on that knowledge plus our knowledge and intuition of our son, because let’s be honest every child is different and one approach will not fit all.

Before we dive into the tips, here are some basic principles we adopted with our approach.

  • A consistent routine around meal and snack times.
  • The parents decide where, when and what is being offered and the child decides how much they want to eat (if at all) with ZERO pressure to try or eat anything.
  • There is always at least one safe/favourite/accepted food and a small amount of a new food or portion of the family meal.
  • If all food is refused, we say ‘that’s fine but that is all that is on the menu tonight’ and we don’t make them something else.**We are not always comfortable with this and have had times when he would wake with the shakes in the morning. So depending on the day we sometimes offer something else at least half an hour away from meal time and it would be something we know is an accepted food but a boring food eg. toast with nut butter.
  • Parents sit and eat with the child as often as possible and do our best to remain calm and keep the vibe relaxed and enjoyable at the table.

One other thing to consider before reading on for the tips is what is actually deemed a success or a win with fussy eating? Exposure is key and celebrating the small wins is important (especially for the parents). Lower your expectations of them hoofing down a stir fry next week as it’s very unlikely to happen. Instead, focus on exposure which is not just putting a food on their plate but seeing, identifying, touching, smelling all kinds of foods. Did they look and identify some capsicum when you picked it up at the grocery store? Win! Did they touch the tomato when you asked them to put it in the fridge? Win! Did they smell the rosemary when you walked past the bush in the garden? Win! Did they lick the lamb chop you put on their plate? Win! When you shift your mindset to think about exposure rather than actually eating a food it can make it a more positive experience for you. Remember, kids sometimes need up to 15 or more exposures to a food before they try it so I can’t express enough how important it is not to give up and continue giving as many opportunities for exposure as possible.

Okay, so let’s get into it. Here I am sharing as many tips as possible that I have collated over the last two years of having a non adventurous eater. Some of these might be successful for you, some of them may not. Even the ones that are successful might not be when you attempt them again (ah it’s so much fun isn’t it ;)). But the aim here is not to give you a formula that fits all because we know that doesn’t work, it’s to give you new ideas so that you can continue with persistence and patience which at the core, is really what it takes to turn a non adventurous eater into an adventurous eater.

These tips are not age specific so always serve food appropriately for your child’s age and eating stage to minimise choking risk.

My top tips for fussy eaters…

  • Lead by example, sit and eat with them.
  • Involve them in the shopping. Identify foods you are picking out which will be for dinner that night.
  • Involve them in the cooking. Get them a kids knife and let them cut some easy foods, mix things, pour things, arrange things, open things etc.
  • Involve them in the plating up process. Encourage them to touch the foods in an environment where they are not expected to eat it yet.
  • Get them a new ‘special’ plate/spoon/fork (maybe a paw patrol/wiggles one?).
  • Let them upgrade to a ‘big’ adult size fork or spoon.
  • Give them something to dip their food into (yoghurt, mayonnaise, hummus, guacamole etc).
  • Serve vegetable sticks sticking up out of a dip to make it more fun.
  • Serve the food on a skewer.
  • Serve the meal as DIY in the middle of the table and give them their own set of tongs. We like to do this with a BBQ or a middle eastern plate of falafels, vegetables, hummus and flat bread.
  • Use imaginative play: parent ‘I’ve got some green trees on my plate and I’m going to eat the branches’ (eat the head of a broccoli floret). Do you have green trees on your plate?
  • Gamify dinner time. eg, in a lighthearted way, we ask and pretend to want to eat something off Beau’s plate and he loves to joke with us and say ‘no that’s for my tummy’ and then he eats it and we do an exaggerated response which he finds hilarious.
  • Ask questions about their food in a descriptive manner. Is your cucumber crunchy? Is your pumpkin soft? I’ve got purple beetroot what colour is yours?
  • Roll food into balls eg, roll some peas into mash potato and show them you made a ball and how you can eat it. We often try to balance the ball in our palm and then roll it into our mouths.
  • Balance one food on top of another. Eg. When we were encouraging him to try corn on the cob we showed him how to balanced a piece of grated cheese (accepted food) on top and then crunch into the corn to eat the cheese. When he realised he liked the corn he continued to eat it by itself.
  • Build a tower with their food (stack cucumber pieces on top of each other). You can demonstrate how to count them, eat one and then count again.
  • Create a ‘race track’ on their plate. We did this with olives and showed him how the olive could be a car and it followed a track and them zoomed into his mouth.
  • Cut food into different shapes (hearts, triangles, stars, trucks etc).
  • Make characters out of their food. Eg. a smiley face, a lion, a dinosaur etc. (google for inspo)
  • Focus on a different texture. Always serve soft pita bread? Try toasting it in the oven to make it crunchy pita bread and see how loud they can crunch it.
  • Identify what texture they like and focus on foods of that texture. Eg, Beau loves crunchy things, so when serving a new vegetable I try to serve it in a way that has crunch factor (raw or baked with a crumb). It’s important to serve different textures too but if baked crunchy broccoli becomes an accepted food first, then they are likely to be more open to trying soft broccoli down the track as they will be familiar with that vegetable.
  • Use a small animal to sit at the table with them and prompt with questions like is your carrot crunchy? or have the animal try some food and describe it.
  • Try a different environment. Always sit at the table for lunch? Try eating outside picnic style.
  • Experiment with growing food yourself that they can pick from the garden. Even just one pot of an easy crop is enough if you don’t have a lot of room.
  • Ask for input/give them a choice, without giving them free range. Example, Beau would you like spaghetti or burritos tonight?
  • Let them look through a cook book and pick something they want to eat that week.
  • If your child has screen time, try and find shows/apps/games that include food and maybe their favourite character trying food. Eg. the only ‘mixed meal’ our son eats right now is a homemade pizza, and the reason he tried it is because he saw Blippy eating pizza on the TV one day. We took advantage of the opportunity and said ‘hey Beau do you want to eat pizza like Blippy tonight?’, it was a resounding YES and now every Friday night we do homemade pizzas.
  • Try to keep them at the dinner table for an extra 10 minutes after they show signs of wanting to end the meal. A recent study shows that children ate significantly more fruits and vegetables when family meals lasted approximately 10 minutes longer. Try asking them questions, playing I spy, singing a song to keep them at the table that little bit longer.
  • IMPORTANT: Have nights where you take the pressure off yourself. Playing games, being animated, singing songs and the rest of it for what might result in one bite of a food is EXHAUSTING. Have nights where you just serve the food and let meal time play out however it does. You might also want to have nights where you eat your meal without children so that you can still enjoy dinner time yourself. On these nights I still sit with the kids at their meal time and just have a small snack usually of whatever vegetables I’ve served to the kids.

My last tip, is to take a big breath, know that they will be okay if they don’t eat much this meal, trust that they will make up for it at another meal, and move on. You have done your part (decided where, when and what you serve) and the rest is out of your control. It’s much easier said than done, trust me I know, but removing the emotion out of it was the only way, as a Nutritionist, I could cope with the stress and exhaustion each day.

Sending you all the good vibes that some of these tips might work for you and if you have other great ideas please share in the comments below!

Looking for some recipe inspo for your little ones? Try these

4 Ingredient Cookies

Buckwheat Banana Bread

Veggie Packed Bolognese

Easy Chicken Noodle Soup


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