When fussy eating isn’t just a fad
Food and meal times can be one of the biggest battlegrounds for families. Toddlers and young children often use food choices as a way of asserting their growing independence. This is a normal part of development, and while frustrating and stressful for parents and caregivers, it generally improves over time to a point where all parties feel reasonably satisfied with the quality and variety of food on offer. But what happens when the rocky road to a varied diet and relatively peaceful meal times becomes impossible to traverse?
Build a Bridge
Build a bridge…literally and figuratively. Bridging flavours and textures refer to foods or condiments that are similar to something that a fussy eater is already passionate about, and can be used to introduce a new item in relative safety. For example, for the child who is passionate about pasta, alternatives such as wholemeal pasta, coloured vegetable pastas and rice dishes could be used as a bridge. Meanwhile, fussy eaters who love chips may be responsive to bridges such as sweet potato chips, cauliflower fritters, polenta chips, or ‘bite and dissolve’ crispbreads. When identifying potential bridges, think about your child’s preferred colour and texture in foods, and then gently explore around that theme. Consider favoured condiments and how they could be used to unite old and new flavours; for example, hummus, tomato sauce or cheese sauce on vegetable sticks. As for that figurative bridge – it will provide a mental escape route to greener pastures when meal times become stressful.
Children are biologically programmed during toddlerhood to limit their range of food choices. This is an evolutionary throwback to prevent them from putting harmful substances in their mouths as they become more mobile, for example, berries from the garden. However, in modern terms this may frustratingly see previously adventurous babies suddenly cut down their diet to a few staple favourites. Strategies for creating safe havens for a fussy eater include leading by example, as this will model to your child that the food you are eating is safe. Repeat exposure is also vital. The theory goes that it may take up to fifteen offerings before a toddler or small child will accept a new food. So, begin the repetition yourself – eat (and enjoy!) a variety of coloured vegetables or salad (or whatever your target food may be) with your own main meals to begin the process of repeated exposure.
Another approach is to offer new foods one at a time alongside tried and tested staples. Toddlers and small children respond to routine and familiarity, so changing the game plan by introducing new foods without a parachute may lead to a crash landing. Providing new challenges with the safety net of safe haven foods can help to smooth the path. This doesn’t mean cooking up several meal options. Instead, quick easy sides such as cheese, toast soldiers, avocado on crispbread, pasta pieces, chopped ham or chicken, salad or vegetable sticks offer a buffer for the new food zone.
Make it snappy
Prolonged meal times are a breeding ground for conflict and frustration from all angles. Consequently, suggested timeframes for meals range from a snappy fifteen minutes to a slightly more generous thirty minutes. Over this time, try offering two courses – a main course accompanied by a couple of safe havens, followed up by a smaller finisher such as fruit and yoghurt or cheese and crackers. The incorporation of a regular follow up provides extra opportunities for meeting nutritional targets and satisfying hunger. However, aim to avoid offering a follow up that is associated with reward – for example, ice cream, biscuits or chocolate. Choose a finisher that is appealing to young taste buds and offers nutritional benefit, but sits outside the treat category.
Little people are hard wired to move and explore their surroundings with energy and curiosity. Encouraging them to play and be active at every opportunity throughout the day is another way to stimulate their appetite when it comes to meal time, and also for meal times to provide a welcome respite following a busy playtime. Keep a keen eye out for ways to get your toddler or small child moving as much as possible throughout the day; for example walking rather than using the pushchair where possible, watering plants in the garden, trying out new sports in the back yard and dancing to favourite songs.
Finally, as with many aspects of family life, managing expectations is vital. Growth, energy levels and general wellbeing are indicators of the overall nutritional adequacy of your little one’s diet. With time, encouragement, perseverance and a good measure of patience, any remaining kinks can be straightened out along the way.
For more information on dealing with fussy and selective eating patterns, or to make an appointment with Robyn, please contact Possums The Clinic on 07 3036 4081 or [email protected]