Fussy eating.

Fussy eating can be a normal part of childhood development and although food refusal can be frustrating for families, many children go through this stage. It is expected that a child’s appetite will fluctuate over time depending on how much they are growing or how active they are. The early stages of life are also a time when your child is understanding their own boundaries and independence.

Research shows that most children will grow out of the ‘fussy eating’ stage and go on to eat a wide variety of foods. However, for some families, long-term problematic eating can be a reality. Eating is a complex task for humans, especially children. It involves our organs, muscles, sensory system, learning development, nutrition status and environment. Parents often place a lot of pressure on themselves to feed their child a well-balanced diet. However, it is important for them to remember that eating is not always instinctual, and there may be other factors that could be contributing towards your child’s eating preferences. To help support your child through their fussy eating journey and create calmer mealtimes, consider the following strategies:

Create a calmer mealtime environment

Stressful mealtimes can switch on our fight or flight response, which can reduce our appetite. Creating a calmer mealtime environment can help to create a space where your child is more willing to eat and try new foods.

Some tips for creating a calmer mealtime environment include:

  • Turn off the TV, put phones/iPads away and consider background noise. 
  • Start a family ritual, this could include asking each family member what the best part of their day was or doing some deep breathing at the start of the meal. 
  • Avoid forcing your child to eat.  
  • Have a similar routine every night when possible so that your child knows what to expect and avoid filling up on drinks or snacks before the meal.
  • Try serving family style, this includes putting the meal in the middle of the table and allowing your child to serve their own food. Make sure there is always food available that you know your child will eat. 
  • Keep mealtimes to no longer than 20-30 minutes. 
  • Model good feeding behaviour, eat a wide variety of food and eat with your child. 

How to get your child to explore new foods

Research suggests that children are more likely to try a new food if they have been exposed to it over time. A UK study found that when children took part in a sensory play activity with real fruits and vegetables, then they were more likely to taste the food when they were at home.

Some tips on how to help your child explore new foods could include:

  • Encourage your child to engage in messy play, this could include painting with fruits and vegetables, kneading dough or playing with cooked noodles. 
  • Try planting your own herbs or vegetable garden and get your child involved in the process. This is a great learning activity, and your child will feel a sense of pride seeing what they have grown. 
  • Invite your child to help you in the kitchen, this could include your child helping to get food out of the fridge or washing the veggies. 
  • Let your child pick a recipe. 
  • Take a trip to your local farmers market. 

Remember we want to make mealtimes a happy place for your child.  Try not to focus on the actual bite, focus more on your child being calm and happy at the dinner table and then the bite should eventually follow.

When to seek help

  • If your child has poor ongoing weight gain or weight loss. 
  • Ongoing choking, gagging or coughing during meals.
  • Avoids all foods in a specific texture group, eg: wet, crunchy, soft or food groups.
  • If your child has less than 20 foods that they are able to consistently eat. 
  • If you feel like mealtimes are a constant battle.

Where to seek help

  • Consulting with your family GP.
  • Dietitians, Speech therapy and Occupational therapy.
  • An Occupational therapist can help work with you and your child to create a sensory profile for your child and identity sensory preferences and sensitivities.
  • Sensory assessments can form part of your child’s assessment, please review our list of services at Inside Out.

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