Sure, coconut brownies and cauliflower pizza are divine, and any sane person would happily live on these foods until the end of their days. However, as any parent of a picky eater knows, it will take nothing less than an actual divine intervention (in the form of a thunderbolt from heaven and possibly a voice from a burning bush) to get your fussy eater to deviate from their staples of two minute noodles and viennas. It is all very well to have a wealth of nutritional knowledge, but how do you implement it with your notoriously fussy eater?
First things first: Remember this is a loving revolution. This isn’t about harsh rules, unrealistic goals, or suddenly withdrawing all your child’s favourite foods in one fell swoop. The loving revolution is about understanding where your child’s behaviour is coming from, working with that behaviour in a gentle way, and setting your little one up to win as they learn to navigate the big world of food and their bodies.
Fussy eating has many roots, but it is very seldom about “acting up” or deliberately trying to make your life difficult. It might be about trying to control a situation they feel uncomfortable in, or about exerting independence. More often than not, fussy eating comes out of fear – a perfectly normal, natural fear towards unknown foods or foods that have a strong, unfamiliar tastes. I suspect most of us would react the same way should we visit Cambodia and be expected to eat a deep fried tarantula. Ironically, a lot of ways that we as parents try to overcome this fear – by insisting the scary food is eaten, or by withholding privileges unless the fear is faced – only serves to make this fear worse.
With this in mind, it is best to approach your family’s loving revolution slowly and gently. If your child comes home one day to find all their safe foods have disappeared, with a foreign tub of coconut oil and a box of spiky pineapples in their place, you are really giving them no other option but to freak out. Approach your child’s fear of different foods the same way you would like someone to deal with your fears – with love, kindness and lots of compassionate communication.
A pillar of overcoming fussy eating is to take all the pressure off – pressure has only one effect on a fussy eater, and that is negative. Even if it works in the short term, research shows that it has the opposite effect in the long term and can lead to prolonged, even fussier eating. You want to create an environment of love and happiness around the dining room table, and you want a new food to be associated with only positive emotions. In the place of pressure and ultimatums, try gentle encouragement and verbal praise, with no reprimanding for food refusals. You could even have a fun positive reinforcement system, with rewards like stickers or a chart.
Keep the conversation going about the changes that you would like to make – it will be easier for your child to get used to the idea of new foods before having to actually face them down. Make sure he understands why these new foods will be important, but it is more important that he understands that he is safe in the context of the new foods. This means keeping him involved in the process from day one – ask his opinions, walk down the vegetable aisle with him and have him choose what to buy, page through a whole food recipe book and have him choose what looks delicious. Assure her that you will take the changes at her pace. Encourage fun with food by starting a small food garden, or some potted herbs on the window sill.
Slowly phase in your new foods and new meals – you know best the pace that your child will feel comfortable with. If you are giving a meal with unsafe foods, give small amounts to make it feel manageable. A useful technique may be to serve new foods along with safe foods (without any pressure to eat either) – this will help her to feel safe that there is something on the plate that she can eat, whilst still gently exposing her to new foods. Remind him that his favourite foods are still there – while you are having a whole food breakfast today, tomorrow he is welcome to have his boxed cereal once more. Be careful not to become a short order cook. If you cook a whole meal that you know will be a challenge for her, make sure to incorporate one or two elements that she is comfortable with, but make it clear that you will not be cooking a separate meal. If a whole meal is refused, do not make new food, but make sure the following mealtime has some “safe” foods to enable her to eat comfortably.
Construct a basic meal structure for your family, with set times and places for eating. I recommend meals and snacks three hours apart, with no grazing in between. Sometimes fussy eating is simply your kiddo never being hungry enough to try new foods. This means no bottles, fruit juices, or grazing – not even on carrot sticks! You can also set a limit for time at the table – fifteen minutes is long enough for a toddler, twenty to thirty minutes for the older child. After this time at the table is no longer constructive, so remove the plates and try again at the next meal.
One of the keys to overcoming fussy eating is exposure and familiarity. The trick here is to get kiddo totally familiar with the food being in his space – not necessarily eating it, but seeing it on the kitchen counter, watching sisters and brothers eating it, having it on the dining room table. Remember the rule of no pressure – the more they are exposed to the food without a negative experience surrounding it, the quicker they will get to the point of accepting it and liking it. Buy a few whole food recipe books, and leave them out with pictures for her to look at – you could even page through it with her in your spare time.
Often, it is as simple as mom, dad and siblings openly enjoying the new foods. Be very aware of mom or dad’s fussy eating or refusing to eat certain vegetables – the subtlest of cues can be picked up by your child. Having everyone love this new food is already a strong recommendation that the food is safe and yummy.