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Fussy Eating Problems

It is important to remember that many children will be fussy about food at certain times in their lives, but if the problem becomes more severe and you have a child who is refusing to eat anything other than bread and jam or chicken nuggets at every meal, then you do need to take some remedial action.

Do you have a problem?

Sometimes it is easy to get worried if you don't feel your child eats enough, or if he suddenly starts to reject certain foods. I'd always advise keeping a food diary for a few weeks if you are feeling anxious, as this is the best way to get a true picture of what your child is consuming. You may be surprised to find that although he doesn't eat much at mealtimes, he is eating quite a lot of snacks between meals, or is making up for what he doesn't eat one day by having far more than usual the  next day.

You should try to ensure that your child eats something from each of the main food groups, but try not to worry if he refuses certain foods. If his diet is broadly balanced, he may still be getting all the essentials he needs. By keeping a food diary you will spot whether there are any gaps in his basic nutritional needs.

If you are really worried, you should check your child is fit and healthy and that there are no underlying medical reasons behind his fussiness about food.  Take him to your health visitor or GP to be weighed and measured to make sure that he is growing properly. You may want to ask for a blood test to check his iron levels aren't causing problems. If your food diary has suggested that your child's diet isn't providing the essential nutrients he needs, talk to your GP about using a vitamin or mineral supplement. Remember, however, that this is not an alternative to a healthy diet and that you should consider this a short-term solution.

The basic rules

There are some basic rules you should follow for a fussy eater. If you follow these rules properly and consistently, this may be sufficient to sort out the problem.

  • Explain to your child that if he doesn't eat his meals, he will not be offered snacks as an alternative. Always stick to this rule.
  • Make sure he is actually hungry at mealtimes, and hasn't filled up on drinks and snacks beforehand.
  • Allow him to eat at least half of his food at mealtimes before you offer a drink. Avoid giving him sugary drinks or undiluted fruit juice with his meal.
  • Stick to a pattern of regular mealtimes.
  • If your child refuses to eat something, don't try to force¬ feed him and try not to shout or to get upset.
  • Keep mealtimes short - around 30 minutes. Don't let them turn into a battle. If your child is continuing to refuse to eat, simply take the plate away.
  • If you are feeling anxious about what your child is eating, try not to let him see this. It is all too easy to convey your concerns to your child, which can exacerbate the problem.

Dealing with a fussy eater

In my experience, fussy eating habits can easily become ingrained and it can take time and effort to change your child's attitude to food. I have found that one of the best ways to deal with fussy eating is to take a seemingly relaxed approach, by ignoring the problem and calming the situation before gradually beginning to introduce a wider diet.

Stage one - restoring calm

If things have developed to the stage where mealtimes have become a source of argument and stress, start by restoring some peace. This in itself can make a difference to the way your child eats, as stress can kill appetite. If your child equates mealtimes with arguments, his stress levels will rise as soon as he sits down at the table. This can lead to the release of hormones which restrict the blood supply to the stomach and can then affect your child's appetite.

  • Make sure that the rest of the family are aware of what you are trying to do, although be careful not to say anything about it to your child. It is essential that both parents present a united front on this so that your child doesn't receive conflicting signals. Childminders, nannies or au pairs who may be preparing food for your child should be made aware of what you are doing. If your child's siblings are much older and can understand, you may want to explain to them, but with younger children it will be easier not to say anything at all.
  • If the source of stress has been one particular food, for example certain vegetables, then don't serve your child the food he has been refusing. Prepare a normal meal for the rest of the family, but do not give your fussy eater any of the foods that he has issues with.
  • At this stage, your child will probably feel he has won the battle and he will start to relax. Don't discuss it with him, but instead act as if nothing has happened.
  • You will find that mealtimes become far more relaxing for you, too. Try to let go of all the stress that has built up around mealtimes. You may still be worried about the fact that your child's diet is limited and that he is not eating all that you would like, but take care not to express any of these concerns to your child.
  • Continue with this strategy for at least a week or two. By then, mealtimes will have become more enjoyable again and both you and your child should be feeling more relaxed.

Stage two - introducing new foods

  • It is only once you and your child have become more relaxed that you can start gradually working on expanding your child's diet.
  • When you are out shopping with your child, find a food that you know he has never tried but that you enjoy. If your child has a vegetable problem, you may want to start with something sweet like sweet potato or butternut squash.
  • Cook the new food in an appealing way (for example, you could bake slices of sweet potato so that they look like chunky chips), and serve it at the table to everyone else, but don't offer any to your child.
  • Talk about the food - about where it comes from and how it grows. You could even search for some fascinating facts related to the food by looking on the Internet. If you can manage to get your child interested, he is more likely to want to taste the food.
  • Gradually introduce more new foods, or prepare familiar ones in a new way, and talk about how you've cooked them or where they come from, but do not offer any to your child. At this stage, don't even suggest that he might like to try things that you are cooking.
  • If you continue with this, the majority of children will soon cave in and ask to try some of what you are eating. Some may do it sneakily when they think you aren't looking!
  • Be patient, it may take time, but the more interesting you make your food sound and the less bothered you appear to be about your child eating it, the more likely he is to want to try whatever you have prepared.
  • Remember, your child's bad eating habits may have taken years to establish, and are unlikely to instantly disappear. It can take time and effort as young children can be extremely stubborn.
  • Don't forget to praise your child when he eats new foods, just as you would offer praise for other good behaviour. This will help him to feel good about healthy eating. Tell him why they are good for him, for example, 'They'll make you grow big and tall like Daddy' or 'They'll make you one of the fastest runners in nursery.'

How to encourage your child to eat more vegetables

Many parents have difficulty getting their child to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, and some children will refuse to eat any vegetables at all. If your child rejects vegetables, try to encourage him to eat more fruit to make up for this, but with a little imagination, you may be able to make vegetables more appealing.

  • Some children don't like cooked vegetables, but prefer to eat them raw and will eat grated carrot or chopped tomatoes.
  • Chop up some crunchy vegetables such as carrot, cucumber or peppers into sticks and serve with a dip such as hummus or salsa.
  • Try placing a plate of chopped vegetables and a dip on the table when your child gets home from school or nursery. Make sure they are somewhere that your child will see them, but don't make an issue about it. It may help if you try this when your child has a friend round who you know eats well, as your child will be more likely to eat if he sees his friend enjoying the vegetables.
  • Add sliced or pureed vegetables to pasta sauces, casseroles or stews.
  • Stir-fry vegetables with some meat, fish or chicken for a Chinese-style meal.
  • Mash cooked carrot, peas, sweetcorn or swede with potatoes and serve as a spread on rice cakes or as a filler in pitta bread.
  • Grilled cheese and tomato on a slice of bread or pitta makes a good snack.
  • Serve sliced vegetables with sandwiches.
  • If your toddler refuses to eat vegetables, try pureeing vegetable soup very smoothly and adding some cool, boiled water or milk. Give it as a drink from a cup.
  • Try introducing some recipes that use a combination of fruit and vegetables such as Chicken-peach Casserole (see page 105) and Fruity Lamb Tagine (see page 102).
  • Look for recipes that use hidden vegetables.

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