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When it comes to mealtimes, nothing can bring on a meltdown from both parent and a child, is a kid who refuses to eat fruit and vegetables but will happily chow down on sugary snacks and processed foods.
Dr. Rebecca Byrne is a Dietitian at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) who researches the impact of fussy eating, supported by the Woolworths Centre for Childhood Nutrition Research (WCCNR).
Over one million Australian children under the age of 5 spend time in early childhood education each week, and educators are in an ideal position to work in partnership with parents and support the development of healthy eating habits.
Try pairing a new food with a food your child already likes.
1. Eat your own vegetables.
If your child is a fussy eater – the number one tip for parents is to eat your vegetables. When children see you eating a range of healthy foods, they will learn to eat these foods too.
2. Food refusal is normal.
Food refusal, especially of new foods, is a normal part of child development. This is strongest around two years of age and lasts until children are at least six. Remembering that all children go through this phase, and it is not just your child 'being difficult', can be helpful in the heat of the moment.
3. Keep calm.
It is frustrating to prepare a meal which stays uneaten or is met with cries of 'yuck'. Getting angry can create negative associations for children with certain foods and it may take longer for them to accept these foods.
Stock your supermarket trolley with a range of healthy choices.
4. Offer small portions.
Children have small tummies, so will often refuse food simply because they have had enough. This is also useful if you are worried about food going to waste. Package up the leftovers for your lunch tomorrow.
5. Offer foods again and again and again.
Toddlers need to try a new food 10-20 times before they learn to like the taste and accept the food as part of their regular meals. For older children this can be 20 times or more. This is why we do not recommend hiding vegetables in food. Children don't get the opportunity to taste individual foods and learn to like them.
6. Pair a new food with a food your child already likes.
This can be a useful strategy at meal times – kids know their safe food is available and may feel more comfortable trying the new foods. Many families have success with a 'tasting plate'.
A new food is presented on a separate plate in the middle of the table, for each family member to try. No one has to eat all the food; a small taste is great. Give children permission to politely spit out a food if they don't like it. For very fussy eaters, even picking up a new food for the first time is a win.
Offer foods again and again and again.
7. Adopt a neutral approach to how much kids eat.
Many adults remember being made to stay at the table until all their dinner was finished, and how awful that felt. Researchers call this 'pressure to eat'. It simply doesn't work and can increase fussy behaviour.
8. Bribes don't work!
'Eat your broccoli and you can have your ice-cream' simply acts to increase the child's liking for the ice-cream and decrease liking for the food that you want them to eat. Offering foods over and over again is key.
9. Eat meals together.
Families are busy – young children eat early, before an early bed time, while older children have after school activities. Prioritise a couple of times a week that the whole family eats together, because if kids see you eating healthy foods, they will too.
10. Keep calm.
Relaxed mealtimes, where children see their parents eat a range of healthy foods is the number one way to overcome the fussy eating stage and get kids enjoying a variety of tastes and textures.