Chances are, if you’re reading this, that you’re having a few troubles getting your little one to eat. Welcome to my world - my youngest is my third child, so you’d think by now I’d have it all sussed when it comes to dealing with picky eaters. But alas, she’s just entering that phase of toddlerhood where she’d pretty much live on Peppa Pig fromage frais (yes, it *has* to be those ones) and peanut butter sandwiches. Factor in that I'm a parenting journalist, and 'fessing up to having a fussy eater is pretty much a parenting fail. So don't feel alone if you've been wondering exactly how long a child can survive on thin air. And instead of despairing at every meal time, try these tips for tackling the table when you've got a picky eater on your hands...
1. Try to avoid emotional eating
Pretty much every book you can buy about getting picky eaters to chow down at mealtimes will stress the importance of avoiding emotional eating. That’s too massive a topic to tackle here but this book is worth a read if it’s something that interests you. The basic premise, though, is that we should try to avoid entangling mealtimes with emotions which, basically means not showing your child the anxiety you may feel at mealtimes over what she does or doesn't eat. It won't help. This also means avoiding using food as a bribe or treat, and generally trying to make the meal table a relaxed place to be for everyone. Easier said than done if you've got a little one clamping her jaws shut and refusing a bit of anything with any nutritional value whatsoever, but it's advice worth heeding, in my view.
2. It's perfectly normal to go through a picky eating phase
We tend to feel like we've failed some sort of parenting 101 when our kids point-blank refuse to eat anything except Cheerios and Dairylea, but actually it's totally normal for toddlers to go through a stage of being fussy eaters. Kids - toddlers especially - are hard-wired to test boundaries, and they'll go to great lengths to work out how much power they have, and how best to wield it. So try not to panic in the presence of a picky eater, and definitely don't assume that something is seriously wrong with your child just because she's going through a fussy phase. Obviously it goes without saying that you should seek advice from your health visitor or GP if you have serious concerns about your child's health, but if you can approach picky eating as a pretty normal part of being a toddler, it might help you hold onto your sanity when you're dishing up macaroni cheese for the seventh time this week.
3. Remind yourself that your picky eater won't starve
I have to repeat this to myself several times day but as far as I know it is actually true. I have never heard of a toddler expiring because no-one gave in to her demands for Fruit Loops for three meals per day plus snacks. Eventually, even the pickiest of eaters will eat when they're hungry, no matter what their options. Now I'm not advocating that you should limit a child's food options until hunger drives them to eat whatever you put infront of them - good gracious, no. I simply mean that on days when I literally cannot believe that my little lady is still standing on the basis of having eaten only half a Weetabix in a 12-hour period, I remind myself that she'll eat when she's hungry. And it's true. One morning she'll wake up and wolf two Weetabix plus a banana before asking for a bowl of porridge half an hour later. I'm not even joking. I'm convinced it all balances out in the end. Which brings me to my next point...
4. Consider what your picky eater consumes in a week, not a daySomeone gave me this advice years ago and I think it's utterly inspired. Instead of focusing on what your child eats in any given day (which isn't much at all, in my daughter's case) try to look at what she eats over the course of a week. Kids are cleverer than we give them credit for, and in my daughter's case she's definitely getting pretty much all the nutrients she needs over the course of a week, mainly from grazing on faddish snacks rather than eating sensibly at meal times. But I try to relax - and keeping a log of what she eats in a week is a helpful way of reminding myself of point number 3, too.
5. Don’t overfocus on what they don’t eat
Again, this point was made to me by someone cleverer than I. Whilst bemoaning my eldest child's lack of an adventurous palate, I friend quizzed me on what he does eat. I rattled off a list of foods - fairly limited, admittedly - but she pointed out that within his narrow repertoire of foods he'll deign to eat where reasonably healthy options, including beetroot, melon, pate, and salmon. And there was I stressing over the fact that he won't eat apples. Sometimes it helps to look at the positives. What does your child eat, and what of those foods have some nutritional value? Celebrate those things, and stock the house full of them instead of worrying about the stuff that's on his Will Not Eat list.
6. Cook and shop together
It's well documented that cooking with kids can help develop their interest in food, and the capacity to try new things. I really, really think this works. There are a ton of brilliant blogs out there by parents who do just this - cook with their kids and write about the experience, so you could even try starting a cooking blog of your own, or at least exploring the good ones for some recipe ideas and inspiration. Letting kids help with the grocery shopping is another thing that works surprisingly well. Yes, it means occasionally buying a new yoghurt that they'll hate, which is money down the drain, but I still think it's a win if a few quid wasted has helped a non-adventurous eater try something new. My youngest is actually brilliant at this. She's not yet two but just last week she picked up a packet of reasonably healthy muffins while I was doing the weekly shop, and all three of my kids have been devouring them all week. Next week we might even try making your own.
If you've got tips to add to this list for how to tackly picky eating, we'd love to hear all about it over on our Facebook page.
Image credit: Flickr/DavidGoehring