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How to have a family meal time with a fussy eater

Family meal times used to be a daily occurrence. Everyone would sit around the dinner table at the end of the day and eat together, share stories about their day and spend quality time together.

In my article about why I prioritise family mealtimes, I explain the many benefits of eating together.

If you have a fussy eater, family meals may be a nightmare and not the way you want to spend your evenings.

But you have to remember, kids learn to eat by watching their parents eat.

If family mealtimes have fallen by the wayside for you, follow this blueprint for happy family mealtimes.

This is one of the first steps on the journey to having your child enjoy happy healthy mealtimes.

Before dinner

  • Give everyone a 5 minute warning that dinner is imminent.   “We will be eating in 5 minutes”.  You may have already noticed that telling a child who is glued to their device that dinner is nearly ready can lead to world war 3.  A hot tip is to have them doing a different, non-device activity in the lead up to dinner.  Playing outside working up an appetite is perfect, but colouring in or just playing also work better than device time.
  • If your child has any sort of sensory issue, coordination issue or hypermobility, it is good to get them to do some of their activation exercises at this point.  A great one that works for a lot of families it to set up an indoor obstacle course, with cushions, tunnels etc.  If you have a trampoline, it might be a good chance for a quick bounce.
  • Next get your child’s to wash hands.  This is obviously a good thing for hygiene. It is also a good sensory exercise, and can help calm their nervous system before dinner. In the same way that I recommend you change foods at dinner all the time, I also recommend that you change the soap, towels and water temperature for hand washing.  This also give’s your child’s sensory system a little nudge each time they wash their hands.
  • Then, ask your child to sit at the table.  If you know that getting your child anywhere near the table is a struggle, you can have some of their safe foods already sitting at the table.  This will help calm your child down.

During dinner

  • There has to be at least one adult eating with your child. Not just sitting with the child, but eating with the child. Not pretending to eat either. Kids will see right through that old trick!
  • How you serve the food is as important as what you serve.  For fussy kids, it is good to adopt a way of serving food called ‘family style serving’.  That means all the foods go in serving bowls in the middle of the table, and every helps themselves (for younger kids, you may have to help serve them).  Everyone needs to take some food from each serving bowl.  If your child can’t bear to have some of the foods on their plate, you can give them a little side plate to put the food on.  That way the food stays visible to them, but they know they don’t have to eat it.  Here’s the catch……there needs to be one of your child’s ‘safe’ foods in the serving bowl.  So if your child only eats Pringles, chicken nuggets and white pasta, there needs to be one of these foods in the middle of the table for them to eat.  That way your child stays calm, and you know they won’t go to bed hungry.
  • For the next 20-30 minutes, you sit back and enjoy the meal.  Focus more on talking and social interaction, and less on what your child is eating, if anything.  Towards the end of the meal, you can encourage your child to eat a bit more before the meal is over, but never force a child to eat.

After dinner

  • At the end of the meal – everyone helps clean up!  Ask your child to take the uneaten food from their plate and put it in the scraps bin / compost bin.  Touching the food to do this actually is a great exercise in desensitising them to the food.  This also signifies that this mealtime is over and there is no more food

If your child is a fussy eater, there are many steps to take to turn that around.  The whole child needs to be considered – their gut health, nutrient status, neurodevelopment, oral motor skills. 

It is complex. 

Need more help?

No matter what the root cause of their eating issues, having family meal times is a big step in the right direction.  If you would like to have a chat to see if my Fussy Eater program “The Fuss No More Method” might be right for your child, please book a discovery call using this link.

What are food jags and why do they matter for fussy eaters?

What are food jags

If you have a fussy eater in your family, you might have noticed that they want to eat the same food on repeat.

If your fussy eater is older enough, you may have experienced them eating the same food over and over, until one day they never look at it again!

They have burnt out on this food.  For kids without feeding issues, they will go off the food for a few weeks, then they will eat it again, but perhaps not as frequently.

For kids with feeding issues, they will never eat that food again!

This is called a food jag.

If your fussy child starts off with 10 foods that they eat, and are allowed to food jag, that number can easily get whittled down to 2 or 3 foods, and then things get really troublesome.

The good news is, now that you are aware of food jags, you can make sure this doesn’t become an issue for your child.

How to avoid food jags

To avoid food jags, you just don’t let your child eat the same food more frequently than every 2 days. If you are breaking out in a cold sweat reading this because your child only eats vegemite sandwiches, yoghurt and apples, keep reading, I have a solution.

Kids should be eating 5 times per day, with 2-3 foods served each time.  To get through 2 complete days without repeating a food, they need at least 20-25 different foods.  Many fussy eaters will have less than 10 foods in their repertoire, so we need to get creative.

Each time the preferred food is served, its sensory properties need to be changed slightly.  The change needs to be enough that the child notices (or else there is no point), but not enough that they panic and won’t eat the food.  This will very gentle challenge their sensory system every time they eat.

Take for example a child that eats vegemite on white toast for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

  • On day one, for breakfast the vegemite on toast will be cut into halves (rectangles).
  • For lunch it will be cut into halves (triangles)
  • For dinner it will be cut into quarters (squares)
  • On day two for breakfast, the vegemite on toast will be cut into quarters (triangles)
  • For lunch it will be left as one whole slice.
  • For dinner it will be one whole slice with the crusts cut off.
  • On day three you can go back to halves (rectangles).

Other ways you can change foods is by

  • Changing colour
  • Changing texture
  • Changing taste

Another frequent food I see children jagging on is potato chips of a certain flavour.  The first step to reduce their fussiness is to start serving other flavours of the potato chip.

What is so bad about food jagging

The problem with letting your child jag is that their range of tolerated foods spirals inwards.

This increases the likelihood of:

  • Them developing a food sensitivity or intolerance to the food
  • Then developing nutrient deficiencies / malnutrition
  • Gut problems due to diversity of foods
  • Anxiety about food

Who is at risk of food jagging

Any child with feeding issues has the potential to jag.  There is a higher prevalence of food jagging among children on the autism spectrum.   Children with ASD will frequently have issues with their sensory system.  Eating the same food over and over again is very easy on their sensory systems and stops them having to process new sensory information.  Children will often jag on highly processed foods, as the factory ensures they are exactly the same every single time.

Try this with your fussy eater.  Reducing food jags is one small part of my Fuss No More Method.  A 12 week program to save your sanity and reduce mealtime tantrums.  If you think this might be right for your family, book a free discovery call to learn more.

Hidden Causes Of Fussy Eating In Children

Are you wondering how your child became a fussy eater?

In many cases, mild fussiness is just a phase. But if the dinner table feels like a battlefield where you’re constantly demanding they try something new, it’s worth considering what might be driving the picky eating.

The example we set for our kids around food plays a critical role in their relationship with food. But for some, there is one or more physical causes contributing to the behaviour.

Nutrient deficiencies

The body needs specific nutrients for every process in the body, including appetite, digestion and absorption of food. So it makes sense that a lack of nutrients that support these processes can lead to issues with eating.

The most common nutrient deficiency we see linked to fussy eating is zinc. Children need a lot of zinc due to its role in growth, development and immunity. They also tend to eat foods that are lower in zinc. The gap between their need and intake can quickly develop into a deficiency.

Zinc is needed to produce stomach acid. If your child doesn’t have enough stomach acid, they may struggle to digest protein and experience symptoms that lead to fussy eating.

Picky eating can also exacerbate low zinc levels.

Picky eaters are less likely to eat animal products, seeds and wholegrains that are rich in zinc. So the gap grows and their lack of appetite and digestive concerns grow worse.

Poor gut health

The gut is the centre of our wellbeing.

Unfortunately, the modern diet and lifestyle has a detrimental effect on gut health.

Poor gut health is often evident in fussy eaters.

Some of the potential gut issues that can contribute to fussy eating include:

  • Constipation – there is a link between constipation and fussy eating. This could be due to the discomfort that constipation causes, other gut issues, or it could be a result of the fussy eating tendencies. Addressing the constipation may help to relieve the picky eating patterns.
  • Dysbiosis – an imbalance in the microbes found in the gut. This leads to greater cravings for sweet, bland and processed foods.
  • Insufficient digestive enzymes – some children may not produce the digestive enzymes needed to digest foods that are high in protein or fats. This can lead to a preference for easy to digest foods – think starchy, sweet and plain foods.

Poor gut health can often go hand in hand with nutrient deficiencies. Because their gut isn’t absorbing nutrients effectively, they are more likely to develop deficiencies. But then low nutrient levels can affect the health and integrity of the gut, turning into a vicious cycle.

This is why it’s critical to take a holistic approach to fussy eating in children.

Sensory issues and neurodevelopmental conditions

Eating involves all of the senses. So if your child is struggling with food, particularly when it comes to things like texture, scent or sounds, a sensory issue may be at the root of the problem. This may be due to sensory processing disorder or a neurodevelopmental condition such as ADHD or autism.

Children who have sensory issues are more likely to become problem feeders – those who refuse entire food groups and textures, refuse to interact with new foods, and consume less than 30 foods. This can be a nightmare for the parents and meal times become stressful for the whole family.

This ties back to both nutrient deficiencies and poor gut health. Many children with sensory issues, ADHD and autism have poor gut health and are at risk of developing nutrient deficiencies.

Even if you only suspect sensory issues in your child, it’s worth exploring further. There are steps that we can take to work on fussy eaters and problem feeders alike, but it’s best to start as soon as possible to prevent further issues.

Are you struggling with your picky eater or problem feeder?

As well as being a Nutritionist, I am also a trained feeding therapist. I use the SOS approach to systematically desensitise picky eaters. Get in touch today to see if I can help you!

Can Being A Good Role Model Help With Fussy Eating?

Do you have a child who tends to be fussy around food?

The solution may be in setting a good example of a healthy relationship with food.

Fussy eating is a complex issue, with many factors that can contribute.

For younger children, it can be a phase that they grow out of.

But if your child continues to refuse new foods, being a good role model around food can help.

Let’s look at some ways that you can set a good example for your kids when it comes to food.

Eating as a family

As many families have both parents working, it’s not always feasible for everyone to sit down at the table together. I often have mothers that tell me that the kids eat at 5, and then they wait until their husband is home to have dinner because they don’t want him to eat alone.

But it is important for kids to eat with adults to see them model behaviour around food. Otherwise, if your kids are always eating separately, they can’t learn healthy behaviours around food.

This can also help to expose your kids to new foods. Exposure is an important part of integrating new foods, so being able to see and smell what you eat can help them to try new foods.

It doesn’t always have to be dinner that you eat together.

If the family’s evening schedule is all over the place, you can eat breakfast together, or have a family lunch every weekend. You can also ask your parents, carers or babysitters if they can sit and eat something with the kids.

Using positive language around food

If you’re telling your child to eat their veggies but your partner is saying that Brussel sprouts are gross, it’s no surprise that your child refuses them.

The way that adults interact with their food will be mimicked, so you want to be aware of what you say and do when it comes to the foods you’re introducing.

This doesn’t mean that you have to eat foods that you loathe or say you love Brussel sprouts when you hate them. But it does mean that both parents need to avoid disparaging foods that are being introduced.

Having one family meal

A common issue that feeds into picky eating is having two separate dinners – one for adults and one for kids. If we give our kids the bland foods they prefer, they’re not going to be interested in trying something new!

Of course you can still make variations of the same meal. For example, you might enjoy a spicy dish but serve your child’s portion up before adding the chilli. Or you might love some salmon but the kids have hoki with the same rice and vegetables on the side.

Another good option is to have buffet or family style meals where the kids can serve themselves. That way, they are still exposed to all of the elements of the meal, but aren’t pressured into trying it.

Some good options to serve family-style include roast dinners (just pre-cut the roast before serving), Mexican, pasta dishes or nourish bowls.

Stick to a routine

When we were growing up, meals and snacks were at the same time every day. If you didn’t eat enough and got hungry, you just had to wait until the next meal or snack.

But nowadays, having structured meal times has gone out the window. Between parents working late, kids going to sports and hobbies and socialising, eating happens at almost any time of day.

Unfortunately, this has led to many kids slipping into a pattern of constantly grazing throughout the day. Then when dinner time comes, they don’t want to eat their veggies. That’s no surprise as they’ve filled up on muesli bars, biscuits and anything else in the cupboard!

That’s why it’s best to set a routine when it comes to eating, particularly over school holidays. What works best for your family is up to you, but a common one is 3 meals and 3 snacks. If they’ve had their snack and are still saying they are hungry, give them some water instead.

Remember that growing kids may need more food while going through a growth spurt. So the snacks may become mini meals at times! In this case, you want to focus on including fruit, veggies, protein and healthy fats in as many snacks as possible.

Finally, I just want to remind you to keep trying. It takes time for kids to try and incorporate new foods into their regular diet. This can feel like an eternity, particularly if your child has sensory issues or is a problem eater. But the way that you behave around food can make a big difference in your child’s long-term wellbeing.

Do you have a fussy eater at home? Want some tailored strategies to increase the variety of foods they eat?

Book in for a free 20 minute chat so we can have a chat about options for your family.

How To Get Your Kids Involved With Food

For our kids to have a healthy relationship with food, we want them to get involved with it from an early age. This can protect against fussy eating tendencies, and can even help to encourage picky eaters to try something new.

But how can you get your kids involved with food?

Here are some easy ideas to get you started.

At the shops

Many parents dread having to take their kids to the supermarket.

But if you stick to the fresh food sections and skip the soft drink and lolly aisles, it can be a great learning experience for them.

The more kids see and interact with a type of food, the more likely they are to give it a try.

You might want to send them off to pick out their options by saying ‘we need a bag of red apples’ or ‘can you pick out 3 zucchinis?’ Or you might ask them to pick between red capsicum or yellow capsicum. You can even show them some of the exotic fruit and vegetables.

Sound like a nightmare?

An easier option is to write the shopping list and weekly meal plan together. Ask questions that give them a sense of contributing such as ‘would you like apples or pears for your lunchbox this week?’

Another good option is taking the kids to the local farmer’s market. It’s a chance for them to learn what is in season and even chat to the people who grow their food! You might like to give them a small amount of cash each and pick out a few items they’d like to try.

In the garden

One of the best ways for kids to become interested in food is getting involved with the production of it.

Planting a veggie or herb garden is a simple way to do this.

You’re also less likely to have wilting bunches of fresh herbs in the fridge, so it also saves on food waste!

Depending on how old your kids are, you might get them to help pick what you’ll plant, dig the hole, plant them and water or weed them.

This is often easiest to do in the warmer months. But there are some fruits and veggies that you can plant during the winter and harvest in spring. Head to your local nursery to see what is in season.

Want to start small?

Even a window box with some herbs is a great starting point. You can plant some parsley, oregano, mint, thyme and sage. Depending on how old your kids are, they can use scissors to chop a few leaves off to add to their dinner.

In the kitchen

Kids love to help, so why not get them involved with preparing meals? Children of any age can help in the kitchen – it’s just a matter of choosing something that is age-appropriate.

If your child is still a toddler, you can give them some lettuce leaves to tear up or stir ingredients in a bowl. The older kids can work up to chopping, peeling, and eventually cooking their own meal on occasion.

Having kids in the kitchen does mean that it takes a little longer to prepare a meal. But even once or twice a month is a good starting point to get them excited about eating nutritious food.

If you have a fussy eater, getting them involved with food is just one part of the puzzle. If you need support increasing the variety of foods your child will eat, please get in touch with me today.

11 top tips for fussy eaters

Lots of families have at least one fussy eater.

Trying to get a fussy eater to eat a nutritious diet can make meal times a very stressful event, and unfortunately it’s a viscous cycle.

As a fussy eater self limits their diet, their gut health goes down hill, and they restrict their food choices even more.

Here are my 11 top tips to help your fussy eater be a bit more adventurous!

  1. Presentation is everything when it comes to kids and food.

This can be a very simple solution to a very big problem.

Invest in a decent spiralizer and spiralize anything and everything!!

Zucchini, beetroot, apples, carrots and cucumber can all be spiralized.

Other presentation ideas include:

  • Make a ‘platter’ with lots of different finger food
  • Include dips like hummus or babaganoush, and chop up veggies to dip in them
  • Make a salad into a smiley face
  • Have different bowls and containers for different parts of the meal
  • You can even use cookie cutters to cut some fruits or veggies.
  1. Get messy.

When a child is exposed to a new food, they know nothing about it.  They don’t know how it tastes, how it will feel in their mouth or what it smells like.

To help them feel comfortable, they need to explore it with their hands before they take the next step of eating.

So give you child permission to play with their food, it’s the first step in eating the food.

 

  1. Be a Role model

If you turn up your nose at vegetables, or refer to them with negative language, your child will pick up on this. 

Don’t say ‘you can’t have dessert until you eat your vegetables’.  It makes it sound like vegetables are something to be dreaded and endured, before you get to the good stuff.

The vegetables are the good stuff!

Try to eat together as a family as much as possible.  This makes eating a social event and a time when children can talk about their day, as well as encouraging them to eat.

No one likes to eat alone.

They need to sit at the table until everyone is finished, whether they are eating or not.  Eating in front of the ipad or TV is not a good idea.

Eating should be a mindful, conscious experience, not a pastime in front of the TV.

 

  1. Remove addictive foods.

If your child has a very high proportion of gluten and dairy foods in their diet, you can consider them addicted.

Whilst they still have these foods, they will not be interested in other foods.

If this is the case for your child, you can either go cold turkey and remove the gluten and dairy foods and endure a few days of tantrums.

Or you can do it gradually over a few days, and try to wean them off them.

Once these foods are gone, they will be more accepting of new tastes and flavours.

 

  1. Make healthy foods accessible.

Keep unhealthy food out of the house, or at least inaccessible to children.  Instead, keep lots of interesting fruit in the fruit bowl, and chopped vegetables in the fridge, at eye level.

Boiled eggs are another great healthy snack.

In the pantry, have a range of nuts and seeds to nibble on.

 

  1. Stick to a schedule.

Grazing is bad for your gut health, your teeth and bad for kid’s appetite.  There should be at least 3 hours between each meal or snack.  A child who sits down to a meal hungry will be more likely to eat the food put down in front of them.  Kids (and adults) get confused between boredom and hunger.

Food isn’t a pastime to relieve boredom, and it is not a crutch when you feel sad. 

Decide on a meal and snack schedule for the family and write it up on the fridge.

Whenever someone asks for food, you can refer them to the schedule!!

 

  1. Give tools for expression.

Children can find it difficult to articulate how they feel about a food, and just call it ‘yuck’.  Teach them words to describe the texture of the food (crispy, tough, crunchy, slimy, soft), the taste of the food (sweet, salty, spicy, sour, bitter), the smell (smokey, spicy, sweet), the look of the food (looks hard, rough, lumpy).

When they can articulate, they will be able to feel more control over their food.

 

  1. Look for underlying causes of fussiness.

Zinc deficiency is common in kids, and can reduce someone’s sense of taste, and therefore their appetite.  Magnesium deficiency can cause sweet cravings.  Run some tests and find out, so you can supplement appropriately.

 

  1. Variety.

Don’t give the same foods every day. Give new foods alongside familiar trusted ones.  Make each plate a rainbow, and use the colours to teach your children about nutrition.  Give the foods names, like broccoli trees or cucumber ribbons.  It makes it a fun colours experience, not a white bland one

 

  1. Use positive reinforcement.

Children will often start off very adventurous eaters, and then when they are about 18 months and develop a sense of self, they will start to reject previously loved food. It is important to push through this stage, and keep giving the same healthy choices. Praise them emphatically for eating their dinner, and give them rewards like stickers or stamps.  Remember a child has to try a food 13 times before you can definitely say that they don’t like it.  Never use food as a reward, and don’t show them you are upset by this change in preferences.  Just finish up the mealtime and move on with the day.

11. Get them involved

It is never too early to get your child involved in food preparation.  Young kids can help put cherry tomatoes into bowls, then they can progress to ripping up lettuce or kale.  Once your child is about 6, they can use a sharp knife to cut up vegetables under supervision.  Going shopping with your child can be good as long as this doesn’t lead to junk ending up in the trolley.  Let your child choose a new fruit and vegetable every week