‘My child doesn’t eat enough’: 8 tips for fussy eating
More often than not, my two and a half year old turns down dinner.
He takes one look at the lovingly prepared – and, I assure you, very tasty – meal, and says, ‘No. Don’t like dinner.’
Even dishes that should be a surefire hit, like pasta or a proper roast, can be spurned. (He only eats the Yorkshire pudding.)
He’s now started refusing even child-friendly food that he used to previously tuck into happily, like fish fingers and mashed potato.
I don’t think he’s losing weight – so he’s obviously getting enough calories at his other meals. But nevertheless, I’m really very worried. My middle child was a fussy eater, yes. But not to this extent.
It’s time to call in the big guns.
It’s not fussiness – it’s neophobia
‘Between the ages of 18 months and six years, children tend to develop something called neophobia, or the fear of the new,’ says Dr Emma Haycraft, a senior lecturer in psychology and a child feeding researcher at Loughborough University.
‘It manifests itself in a suspicion of all new food – and even of food that has previously been eaten. Your child might also be funny about different foods touching each other on the plate.’
Dr Haycraft explains that neophobia is an evolutionary tic, dating back to when we were cavemen, and foraging around in the bush. It developed to prevent poisoning in toddlers as they became more mobile, learning to crawl or walk.
It’s really common – 40 to 50 per cent of parents claim that their child is fussy.
And while for some kids, neophobia lasts for two months, for others it can span a year. ‘We think some children suffer more because they are extra-sensitive to smells, textures and tastes,’ says Dr Haycraft.
Here are her tips on coping with a neophobic child:
1. Keep offering the same foods – it can take 20 times for a food to become more familiar
Stick to a strategy of exposing your child to a range of foods. As annoying as it is to prepare a meal that will be scraped into the bin later, in the long term it can help unravel the mystique of different foods.
‘A lot of parents stop offering items after the third or fourth time, saying, “Oh, Johnny doesn’t like broccoli”,’ says Dr Haycraft. ‘But you shouldn’t stop trying as it can take 20 occasions for a food to be accepted. Instead, serve up the broccoli alongside something that your child likes more. This will help make the unfamiliar food more familiar.’
Try tracking your child’s exposure to particular foods on the website the Child Feeding Guide or associated app, both of which were developed by Dr Haycraft and her team. (The app is available now on iPhone and iPad, and coming soon on Android.)
2. Don’t use food as a reward for good behaviour
A few times a week, I tend to serve my kids a few sweets after dinner. Admission time here: I’ve become so irritated by my toddler son’s complete lack of interest in his dinner that I’ve been telling him he could only have the sweets if he ate some of his meal.
(It didn’t work. He still didn’t eat his dinner.)
And anyway I was wrong apparently – you should never use sweets or another treat as an incentive to eat a main meal.
‘It’s like saying, “If you eat this horrible meal, you can have this delicious pudding,”‘ says Dr Haycraft.
‘I know it goes against all your instincts, but make sure all your children are offered the same treat – it shows that all food is equal.’
So in the same way, even if your child doesn’t eat any of the main course, offer the usual pudding anyway, for example fruit and yoghurt.
3. Reward your child with praise and applause instead
If your child steps out of their comfort zone to try something new, praise them by clapping, cheering or even using a reward chart. ‘You could say, “If you have a bite of this, you can have a sticker for your chart.” Once they have 10 stickers, your child gets a treat,’ says Dr Haycraft.
4. Relax, man
Don’t make a big deal out of mealtimes. Offer up dinner, making sure there’s something on the plate that’s familiar. Leave it at that. Don’t blackmail, bribe or cajole. And don’t say that your child can’t leave the table until they eat something.
‘Kids will eat until they are full and if they are eating pasta, broccoli and peas, and you say you can’t leave the table until they eat the veg, it may teach your child to override their hunger cues, which is linked to obesity,’ says Dr Haycraft. ‘Don’t pressure a child to eat more than they want to.
5. Make sure your child eats with others
Ensure your neophobic child sees other family members eating the same food – it shows that it’s not scary. Definitely don’t go off and make something separate for your child if he or she isn’t keen on what’s on the plate.
6. Make food fun
Take the pressure off by letting your child have some fun with food away from mealtimes. So try potato-printing and courgette-printing, for example. In the supermarket, encourage your child to help choose the food and play games, like asking your child to spot three red foods. ‘The more often your child sees a food, the more familiar it will become,’ says Dr Haycraft. Let your child help prepare and cook food with you too.
7. Double-check snacks and portion sizes
I realised that my toddler was eating too hefty a breakfast (presumably he was making up for his lack of dinner). I’m now trying to keep portion sizes more in check. Watch out that your little one isn’t drinking too much milk too. The Infant and Toddler Forum offers a guide to portion sizes for children aged between one and four years.
But don’t withhold snacks, says Dr Haycraft. Just keep snacks to one sitting to avoid constant grazing.
8. Keep it in perspective
‘If your child isn’t losing weight and is still eating a selection of foods, there isn’t any cause for concern,’ says Dr Haycraft. ‘Have confidence that your child is getting enough calories and nutrients from the other food they eat.’
I feel much better knowing that it’s not my fault – that he’s genetically programmed to behave like this. And from now on, I’m just going to try and sit this neophobic phase out while offering him lots of tantalising goodies and being utterly calm about it. Well, that’s the plan anyway.